I picked this book up mostly at random with Borders went out of business, simply because I'd heard some good reviews, and the cover is romantic and dreamy looking, like a 19th century painting. Perhaps the cover designer did borrow this sloe-eyed girl from a Romantic era portrait; I can't check easily since my copy is currently in Afghanistan. When I read the jacket, however, and realized that the Luis Urrea's mother was American, and that he grew up in San Diego--and even graduated from the same university I attended--I tucked the book into a I'll-think-about-it-back corner of the bookcase and wondered if I should read it. I just haven't been too happy with most of the books I've read from immigrant children about their parents's homeland; many of them have felt second hand. The author's description made me even more wary. A novelization of a distant cousin of some sort who was declared a saint? A flying saint? This sounded too much like magic-realism-Garcia-Marquez territory. I've never been able to finish "One Hundred Years of Solitude"--about the third time the narrative coils around, and I find myself reading about different people with the same names, only this one is eating dirt instead of flying, and I find myself nodding off. Again. Plus, writing about this famous relative sounded like a vanity project. I added it to my list, but thought that when the time came to do my Latin American novels that I would find something else to read.
It was time to leave North America and start on the Caribbean--or so I thought. Mexico was going to be part of my Latin American reading. But then I spotted the audio book of "The Hummingbird's Daughter" at the library--and I need a new audio book. I scanned the box. Oh, dear. Urrea narrated his own book--not usually the best of moves, in my opinion. I decided that I needed something--anything--to work out at the gym, so I took a chance.
Guess what? I loved the book. Yes, yes, it is all very middle-brow, with just enough literary tricks to keep a listener interested, but I loved it anyway. The writing was beautiful, but not show-offy. He actually reminded me a great deal of Tim Winton, both sympathetic writers, both interested in turning a pretty phrase, but with not quite the same I'm-brilliant-just-look-at-these-metaphors insistence that could be a little exhausting with Winton. Little quails run after their mothers like "beads on a rosary", a dying babies chest collapses like a sheet being snapped over a bed--just lovely descriptions. And Urrea's narration was excellent--not a professional's skill with different voices, but very good just the same--and did he zip over all the names of The People's villages--most of them seeming to start with X. Or Q. He just seemed like a nice guy. I wanted to give him a hug, or at least have a beer with him, which is not usually my reaction when I listen to an audio book, particularly one interpreted by the author.
The book has several narrators, one of them Teresita, the hummingbird's daughter herself, as it traces the early part of her life, from bastard daughter of a fourteen year-old peasant girl who dies giving birth to her, to acknowledged illegitimate daughter of a wealthy rancho owner, to mystical saint--and leader of a political movement. The depiction of 19th century Mexico was fascinating, even if i did get a bit dizzy reading about all of the political factions. And yes, there was a bit of flying, a bit of magical realism, but everything was integral to the plot, so I could handle it. There was a bit of slackness to the narrative after Teresita grows up, but before she is "called" to the life of a saint; about fifty pages of the book could have been cut with no harm done. And later Teresita, despite Urrea's emphasis on her humanity, does recede a bit into rose-water holy inscrutability towards the end of the novel. I still enjoyed the book enough that I shipped it off to Afghanistan to a friend who had requested something good to read.
There's a sequel to the novel that depicts her life after she flees to the United States that apparently, according to reviews, isn't quite as successful. I may read "The Queen of America" next year--but now I am off to the Caribbean.
Four and a half Stars