The Art of White Roses (RR) is a Burt Award winning book by Viviana Prado-Nunez. It is set in Cuba on the cusp or in the early days of the Fidel Castro led revolution that changed the country. In it, we get a sense of the economic, racial, and social disparities during the Baptista regime that would have driven the young university students, some we meet only by name, to join the revolution. Mostly though the book centers the characters who amidst this disquiet are just trying to go about their lives – church, school etc.
“He told us to keep quiet, to not panic, to keep the peace.”
The story literally begins with a bang, an explosion at a hotel that is one of the US enclaves popular in main city Havana at the time, worked by people who resented their position in the hierarchy (including limited job prospects, illiteracy, police intimidation, and the growing resentment that comes of seeing how the other half lives). And then some of these young people start disappearing.
“No one dared mention the police until the second person went missing.”
All of this is told from the point of view of a young girl, a tween really, whose life comes apart throughout the course of the book (so much so that at times you just want to hug her). There’s what’s happening in the country and there is what’s happening in her neighbourhood (the disappearing people) and there is what’s happening in her home (her dad’s infidelity and the fallout from that). Some of what she knows and intuits and some of the conversations she’s drawn in to stretches credulity a bit, I mean she’s a child, why are grown people drawing her in to grown people business? She is very smart and empathetic and at that age where she’s starting to understand things in ways her younger brother can’t. But I don’t know; I’m on the line about how some of it plays out. That said, this is beautifully written –
“The stars were so bright it felt like someone had turned the lights on.”
The descriptions alone, and the way the changes taking place in the country are happening but are a bit out of focus as they would be as you focus on your day to day. There are for me some improbabilities and conveniences in the third act, where everything happens very suddenly but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t engaged by it. And mostly it’s the interest in the period and the beauty of the language -richly descriptive and symbolic and atmospheric with, at times, a real sense of menace.
“His hands fidgeted, and I wondered if when he murdered me he would do it with his hands or pull a knife out from somewhere.”
I appreciate that there is sympathy for the revolution even while acknowledging that the more privileged people are somewhat insulated from the hardships of a pre-Castro Cuba. The section I struggled with the most was the soap opera that unfolded when the mistress came to the family home, mostly because I felt it asked a lot of the cheated-on wife (I mean while race is surely an issue in Cuba at the time, and the mistress, Celia’s hardships are in great part shaped by her being Black, for her to ask the main character’s mother if she’s looking down on her because she’s Black was a lot for me …and I’m Black). I mean it’s all very complicated (the violent attack that brought her there etc.) but it was a reach for me. Overall though I liked this book – how it started loudly and with a real sense of confusion and ended quietly and with clarity, certainly within the main character, even if much remains unresolved in the country and in the lives of the characters.