Book review: ‘Conquistadora’ by Esmeralda Santiago

The portrait of a strong, intelligent and enigmatic woman on the cover of Esmeralda Santiago’s exciting new novel hints at the character of the book’s heroine. Born in 1826, Ana Cubillas is the daughter of privileged Spanish aristocrats who send her off to a convent school. Feeling banished and unloved, Ana finds affection in the embrace of a girl in the next room, Elena Alegria Feliz. “They explored each other with furtive, fluttery fingers, hot mouths on cool flesh,” Santiago writes. The erotically awakened girls plot to marry Elena’s twin cousins. “We’ll be sisters then, and we’ll always be together,” says Elena. “Ramon and Inocente are rich and handsome.”

But their plan awakens a deeper passion in Ana. Having learned that the twins’ family has a plantation in Puerto Rico, she convinces the two that if they take over the island property, they could be masters of their own world. “In a few years,” she says, “we can return to Spain with a fortune. And stories enough for a lifetime.” Despite the dangers — pirates! runaway slaves! — they all decide to immigrate to Puerto Rico together: Ana and the twins leave on the first available boat, while Elena and the parents follow a few months later.

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The twins “looked so much alike that people didn’t even try to tell them apart.” In fact, after Ana marries Ramon, both brothers begin taking conjugal turns with her. When she realizes this, she is at first furious, but then decides “she’d worked hard to win them. . . . Why wouldn’t they find a way for both of them to have her?” And why wouldn’t this daring author find a way to throw yet another swain in Ana’s path? It comes in the form of the dashing Severo Fuentes, manager of the plantation, hired for his “ability to instill fear and respect in another human being and his willingness to kill, if necessary, without thinking too much about it.”

The novel’s setup could have spun into a bodice ripper or a potboiler. Instead, once Ana lands in the lush and perilous island that is mid-19th-century Puerto Rico, the tempo and the virtuosic writing accelerate. The author thrusts the reader into a world where kindness and cruelty coexist, as do slavery and freedom, and where the destructive force of nature continually tests the human spirit. Santiago’s storytelling is thrilling, and her descriptions of the island and its multinational denizens are luminous. Her characters’ complexities emerge and collide while the plot twists like tropical vines.

“Conquistadora” conveys fascinating and disturbing historic information about human trafficking in Puerto Rico and its region, about the work and living conditions of slaves and the punishment of runaways. The hunger for freedom, the rumblings of rebellion and the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States trigger unrest in and around the island, threatening its economy. Against this backdrop, there are hurricanes, fires and a cholera epidemic that swiftly kills 27,000 Puerto Ricans in the 1850s.

In the center of this cumulative chaos, Ana is the obsessed heroine who will risk everything, even her own child, to keep the plantation going. Although she’s imperious, she works tirelessly for the sick and wounded. She may be a free spirit, but she keeps slaves. For her to question that contradiction would be to lose everything, and for the author to create a heroine who is in many ways self-centered and self-serving is to take a great risk. But Santiago’s Ana is a woman with a lust for life and the drive of a conquistador. She may be flawed, but she’s also fabulous, and “Conquistadora” is a triumph.

Zukerman is a flutist, the author of four books and creator of the Verbier Vlog on musicalamerica.com.

CONQUISTADORA

By Esmeralda Santiago

Knopf. 414 pp. $27.50

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