The shock of the opening line, ‘The first time Juan Ruiz proposes, I’m eleven years old…’, sets us up for an uneasy insight into the life of a young girl from the Dominican Republic, whose life is to be shaped by the poverty of her homeland and the ambitions of her mother. Ana’s mother is a fierce fighter for her children and the betterment of their lives, even if this means sending her by-now fifteen year old daughter to live in New York as the wife of a much older man. Juan’s family is wealthy, and they have a toehold in America, and so he is a good catch.
Juan’s old and hasn’t married and has no children. This worries my mother, but he comes from hardworking people who can be trusted. And he’s tall and fair, and his shoes are always polished. Besides, out of all the girls Juan could marry and take to America, he picked me.’
Casual violence is already a part of Ana’s life and so the light slaps from her new husband are not unexpected. As the months pass, the violence increases but Ana is given something of a reprieve when Juan is called back home, and Ana is left in the care of his younger brother, César. This is where Ana’s life in American really begins.
This is an incredibly easy world to lose yourself in – Cruz’s use of the present tense means that nothing is certain for the reader as we follow Ana to her new, married life, with all its insecurities. The life of a migrant is an unsteady and uneasy one, and knowing that the novel is based on Cruz’s mother’s life adds another level of verisimilitude. Juan is also a more complex character than he first appears, and Ana’s forays into American life are very much shaped by him and his family, at first at least. As we get to know Ana, we are left in no doubt that this is a woman of strength, and that she is intent on laying down stronger foundations for her family to survive in her new country.
It’s another excellent read on the Women’s Prize shortlist. I’m not convinced it will win – my heart still belongs to Hamnet – but I really enjoyed this novel – I like Cruz’s style, and I will be looking out her other novels.