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.