This is the prototypical first book by an MFA graduate. It’s well-written in a technical sense, with smooth, polished prose and pacing, clear themes, and the right characters in the right places. But it isn’t affecting; it’s pleasant, but forgettable.
This volume contains 8 short stories, of around 25 pages each, and one novella of just over 100 pages, with generous margins and spacing. All the stories are set in Panama and with a couple of exceptions, focus on characters living there. The characters for the most part are children to young adults and must navigate relationships with parents and lovers. There is some variation in the stories: while most are realistic, contemporary and centered on relationships, “The Box House and the Snow” is an almost sinister magical-realist tale, and the titular novella widens its scope to depict the U.S.’s invasion of Panama in 1989 from the point-of-view of an adolescent boy. Most of the stories are in the first person, and most feature female protagonists.
I am not surprise to see that Henriquez has had much more commercial success with later books, because she does show promise here. The novella is probably the best story of the lot, as it has the most depth and development. Characters and their relationships seem believable, the settings are well drawn, and the writing is very readable. But the stories lack that spark that would make them stand out, and in large part I fault their endings, which tend to peter out. Maybe it’s just me, but I expect a great short story to end with a bang or a twist – or, barring that, at least a definite conclusion to whatever issue was raised in the story. The slow winding-down, leaving some issues still open, can work well in a novel, which is more about the journey than the destination. But in a short story, the journey is just around the block – so I want some zing. “The Wide, Pale Ocean,” my favorite of the short stories, would have been excellent if the author had taken a risk with the ending, but she doesn’t and so despite some vivid scenes and characters, the story ultimately doesn’t amount to much.
As my world books challenge book for Panama, I liked this fairly well, and read through it quickly. It’s not at all bad. But it could have been better.