The Festival of San Joaquin by Zee Edgell

I have enjoyed many books – you’ve read about some of them in my Blogger on Books series – but it’s been a long, long time since a book made me cry. Belizean writer Zee Edgell’s Festival of San Joaquin did that, and honestly I’m not even sure why. I only know that the book is so immersive, so tuned in to the main character’s point of view, that I hurt for her and want things to work out for her, and find myself mirroring her suspicions and fear of hoping, and dogged resolve to keep going. I want the best for her and am afraid to believe, as she is, that life can ever be good, as it n/ever was.

Her name is Luz Marina, and that name is not the only thing that feels poetic about this prose. Edgell’s writing is alluring in the best way, a garden of words and aromas and emotions, prickly and beautiful as some flowers in any garden will prove to be.

Luz Marina is a peasant girl, as guileless as they come. Steeped in tradition and family, she surrenders any personal dream to the responsibilities that come of being the oldest when a drunken brawl turns her father invalid. A ‘fortuitous’ meeting with a wealthy woman earns her access to a world that can improve her family’s circumstances. She learns a lot in this new world but any sense of independent thought or agency comes much, much later, after a tragic turn of events.

I am telling this in a linear way the story does not. As Edgell tells it, when we meet Luz Marina she is on (or just recently released after) trial for murder and it takes us the length of the book to find out what truly happened – and it doesn’t feel gimmicky, and we don’t feel cheated, though we hunger for the whole story almost from the beginning. But with narrative that moves like a wooden cart over a bumpy unpaved back road, Edgell seems to say, we’ll get there, we’ll get there…but here’s what happened, and it is as unsequenced as memories in real life.

We have an unreliable narrator in Luz Marina who does not until much later remember exactly what happened that fateful day – though Edgell gives us enough to suspect what and why, if not the specifics of how. Luz Marina who sees a court appointed psychiatrist not only doesn’t have her full story straight in her head, she knows she cannot trust her feelings for she is a trauma survivor who doesn’t even fully understand how damaged and wronged she is, even by the society with which she tries to make right.

One character I come around on, heartily, throughout the course of the book is Luz Marina’s mother, Mama Sofia, who was in the end, less a background figure and burden than I expected her to be – there is a lot under the surface too. How would this tale look from Mama Sofia’s point of view, one gets a sense in her reactions to Luz Marina’s reactions, and it is complicated enough to be interesting.

As if guarding the community and Luz Marina and Mama Sofia’s secrets because it’s none of our business, Edgell doesn’t satisfy every curiousity we have about their lives and that leaves us feeling as unsteady as they are for the duration of the narrative. But in the end, I find myself accepting that that is all, as the novel ends with the story taking a new turn with several possibilities.

Beyond plot, this is a masterclass in characterization and perspective, one in which there are no handlebars or guides available to the persona, one in which mistakes are made, repeatedly, and yet, and yet, it never feels like the writer has lost the plot. A plot which by the way makes a sub-plot of eco-commercial globalization, simple people and big business, capitalism and rural innocence in a way that does not feel improbable to any Caribbean reader. She intertwines these threads of malice and power, family and faith, yearning and terror, heartbreak and hope.

And, as she does so, Edgell makes it feel easy, though I don’t believe it must have been, or maybe it was, maybe she just has the gift. For this is a stirring tale, one that dances between reality and memory and dream giving each equal treatment, as if to say it’s all the same in a world where the fates of characters can be made or unmade in the streets among the masquerade of the Carnival, i.e. The Festival of San Joaquin.

A beautiful book, and it hurts, but, amazingly, does not leave you bereft.

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