Book review: How Colombia Meets America, but Not Quite

By Patricia Engel
182 pages. Black Cat. $14.


The stories in Patricia Engel’s striking debut collection are like snapshots from someone’s photo album: glimpses of relatives, friends, lovers and acquaintances, sometimes posing, sometimes caught by the camera unawares. There are portraits of Latinos in suburban “Gringolandia,” and portraits of young drifters in Miami, 16 of them sharing a single apartment, mattresses crammed together on the floor “like it was war times.” There’s a skinny 16-year-old boy who always wears faded jeans and “a white button-down shirt that looked like it only got washed in the sink,” a high school mean girl who develops a fatal case of anorexia, a womanizing pot dealer who becomes the narrator’s best friend and a Colombian beauty queen who comes to America and is forced into prostitution.

Although the worlds depicted in “Vida” could not be further from the rarefied Oxbridge world that Harold Nicolson depicted in his 1927 classic “Some People,” the character sketches here function in much the same way, coming together to create a sort of novelistic narrative that ultimately reveals more about the narrator than anybody else. In this case the narrator is a young woman named Sabina, who like the author grew up in New Jersey, the daughter of Colombian parents. In the course of these stories Sabina will navigate the shoals of high school and college, meet an assortment of friends in Miami and New York, and get involved with a succession of unreliable men.

What makes Sabina’s coming-of-age story so compelling is the arresting voice Ms. Engel has fashioned for her: a voice that’s immediate, unsentimental and disarmingly direct. Ms. Engel — whose fiction has appeared in The Atlantic, Boston Review, Guernica and other publications — proves as adept at depicting the staid, highly class-conscious world of Sabina’s relatives in Bogotá, as she is at capturing the artsy downtown world of New York, and the Miami club scene where everyone seems to be a model or an entrepreneur just on the verge of success.

Read full article @ The New York Times


~ by eneryvibes on 1,September 13, 2010.

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