With this first novel, Lisa St. Aubin de Tera'n reclaims a family's past by reporting its myths. In documents of the imagination, even hearsay is testimony.
Seventeen-year-old Lydia Sinclair leaves England in 1952 with her new husband, Diego Beltra'n, 20 years her senior, and goes to his ancestral estate in the Andean highlands of Venezuela. Soon after she arrives at Hacienda La Bebella, in a once-green valley that has been turned to dust by locusts, famine, drought and family blood baths, Lydia recognizes her place in that grim landscape as the chronicler of its decline. She is disaster's bride as much as Diego's. He is incapacitated by a kidney ailment and a "sleeping sickness of the heart," and spends most of his time reading and brooding.
Lydia takes over running what is left of the estate, not enough to keep her busy. Benito, an ancient family retainer, fills her days and nights and head with stories. It is Benito who insists on her role as memory's vehicle: "You have come from the past, from our past, to witness this family's decay . . . to save it from the sand. This drought has been the last blow, but our strength had already gone before. You, a foreigner, are our only heir."
The various characters and catastrophes responsible for the progressive destruction of both family and valley are introduced in an overlong prologue. Lydia, too, pays her dues to adversity for 10 dry years. She imports sheep; they die of anthrax. She has a child; it dies soon after birth. Fungus destroys the sugar cane; fire and drought devastate the land and hope; even Lydia's pet vulture turns against her. The valley is depopulated by death and desertion. Diego has a stroke that paralyzes him just when Lydia realizes she is pregnant again. Benito dies. Will this catalogue of calamity ever end? It does, on page 36, when de Tera'n gets down to business: the telling of tales. And a good business it is.
The following six chapters expand the stories hinted at earlier. Each tale could stand on its own somewhat gothic feet; read together, they form a dynastic portrait that spans 200 years of the rise and fall of the house of Beltra'n. We meet the family's heroes and villains, its whores and spinsters, its lunatic murderer and its mutilated prophet. These people are well drawn, and their actions or inertia have a necessary inevitability.
One of the better tales is titled "The House of Cards." Two unmarried sisters, surrounded by and deliberately cloistered in the vast collection of porcelain their mother bequeathed them, do nothing but play bezique, dust the china, have high tea and dream of their girlhoods in Italy.
"They came to depend on the cards, on the ordered society of their bezique pack. They lived in the glamour of the thin card society and for the rituals of the deals and tricks. Knowing what to do with their hands seemed to keep back the town's decay." When one of the sisters dies in the middle of a game, "stifling under the eiderdown of her own flesh," the other has to follow. She plays the hand by herself and takes poison. Every game has its rules.
The deterioration of the Beltra'n family is closely paralleled by the ruin of their lands. When Lydia arrives, the valley is already in the throes of destruction. When she leaves, 10 years and a drought later, the single remaining crop is death. The only person left in the valley is mad Cristo'bal, the maimed obsessive wanderer. Lydia sees him in the distance, his wild hair a halo "composed entirely of splintered bones . . . his strange head-dress of a lifetime's hunger."
Lydia wraps Diego's paralyzed body in a tarpaulin and hauls him into a jeep she has assembled from the wrecked ones in the garage. She drives into the future with her near-dead husband, her unborn child and her intention of salvaging the past by retelling it.
De Tera'n attempts a world of large proportions in a short novel, plunging the reader into the territory of myth and romance. In part, she pulls it off. The tales work, even if the book doesn't, not entirely.
The chronicles of disaster tend to have a tyranny of their own, as relentless as the events they describe. We long for even temporary relief from destiny's dark humorless burdens. The language is often stilted, and there is some confusion of sequence due to Lydia's presence in the narration of the tales.
Lydia does not develop enough over the 10 years. Unfortunate things happen to her with an astonishing regularity, but not much happens in her. She has no apparent past of her own, none reported anyway after the first page. What gap in herself did she fill with the Beltra'ns, so readily becoming the mouthpiece for their calamitous story? We'll never know.