Sunday, June 9, 2013

a haunting first novel.....Loteria: A Novel by Mario Alberto Zambrano

...and when I do finish a book in a reasonable time (largely owing to it being a short one), I am a bit slow in getting my review up.  Still, I'm happy to get this review up in the pre-release time-frame (though it means remembering to go back and put it on Amazon after 7/3 since they only let their own advance readers write customer reviews ahead f time).

Loteria is a Mexican game, similar to Bingo but with pictures instead of numbers and relying on a deck of cards instead of Ping-Pong balls.  Eleven year-old Luz is refusing to speak, but she uses a deck of Loteria cards to spark memories as she journals about her story.  She has recently fallen into the hands of social services as her older sister, Estrella, struggles in the ICU and her father sits in jail.  Her Aunt Tencha comes to visit, but her mother has been gone for some time.  Through her journaling, the reader learns that Luz's life has been haunted by domestic violence and alcohol abuse. 

I don't want to tell too much about the story, which develops in pieces and is far from chronological.  One pivotal moment that I will note is when an older cousin forces a young Luz to touch his genitals (she compares what she touches to an infant's arm).  Luz's father blames her, leading to one of the books hardest to read scenes. 

This book is a quick read, though I can hardly call it easy.  It is around 250 small-sized pages, but a good quarter of them are taken up by illustrations from the loteria deck.  Zambrano did an amazing job showing how a life of violence can be simply "life" to a young girl who knows nothing different.  Fighting is normal and she struggles with the difference between her father's abuse and spats between other family members.  That is by far the element that impressed me the most...moments feel shocking from the outside, but little shocks Luz since she is telling the only story she knows. 

There's a short section where the novel remains a journal but falls more into "real time."  While I see why it needs to happen for the narrative, it throws off the balance for me and I wish it wasn't in there.  I did not see all of Luz's story in advance and I always do appreciate when a novelist can catch me off-guard while remaining true to the story and keeping it realistic to the narrative.  I thought the ending was well-chosen, it avoids the "magic wand" treatment but also doesn't leave the story on an entirely down note (hopefully that's not a horrid spoiler).

Enjoyed is never the right word for books like this, but I give it 4, maybe even 4.5, stars and recommend it. I thought the narrative device of the cards was well-done.  It was unique without feeling overly gimmicky.  I did sometimes feel like something was a bit off in Luz's voice, although I can't point to what made me feel that way.     Impressive for a debut novelist.  An advance copy of the book was provided by the publisher in exchange for my honest review.