Next time you see a woman pushing a stroller down the sidewalk, try observing the people walking nearby. If you look closely you might see their eyes toggling, a glance down at the little person and a glance up at the woman doing the steering. A calculation is being made in that instant: mommy or nanny? Those flickering observations, verbalized or not, can set the parameters of social engagement and hierarchy.
A Colombian immigrant featured in Patricia Engel’s sparkling short-story collection, “The Faraway World,” understands this interaction well; she is disgusted to be frequently mistaken for the nanny while taking her daughter out for a walk. She’d gotten used to, but still chafed at, being treated as the other since coming to the United States to marry a twice-divorced Home Depot manager she’d met through an agency that connects American men to Colombian women. People in their town are forever “looking at us funny,” her husband observes, and police officers always ask for his wife’s green card during traffic stops, even though she has become a U.S. citizen.
A 200-page book of grievances about the treatment of immigrants might make for a pretty dispiriting read. But what makes Engel’s story collection so rich and compelling is that the Colombian American author places her tales in the context of universal themes: the compromises we make for love, the lies we tell ourselves and others, betrayal, paranoia, grief, joy, acceptance. In the 10 stories that make up “The Faraway World” — mostly set in the United States, Colombia and Cuba — we meet a teenage girl with Colombian and French parents whose twin has disappeared from their placid New York suburb, and a Colombian immigrant maid whose fraught relationship with her employer makes her feel as if her job is actually “waged companionship.”
“Love doesn’t need to be exquisite for it to be true,” she laments.
There’s also Flor, a 26-year-old woman in Havana, who thinks that promising the saints she will visit a church each day — 300 and counting — will ensure that her aunt in San Diego will agree to claim her as a relative and allow her to move to the United States.
“I don’t want to love anything on this island,” Flor says. “It will make it harder to leave.”
Another story introduces Paz, a 25-year-old daughter of Colombian immigrants who had fantasized about her boyfriend, Fausto, expanding her father’s small restaurant into a chain throughout Miami. Her dreams crash into her reality.
“Sometimes love hits you like a drunk driver on Memorial Day weekend,” she says. “A tragedy, really, but you don’t care because you’re the victim and beyond hope anyway.”
Engel, an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Miami, knows how to draw in readers fast — and keep them. She began her 2021 novel, “Infinite Country,” with the line: “It was her idea to tie up the nun.”
Seriously, do you think there’s any chance you wouldn’t want to turn off your phone’s ringer and curl up on the couch to see where she’s going with that one?
In “The Faraway World,” Engel entices you with irresistible opening lines over and over.
“My friend Paola had an American boyfriend who paid for her new breasts.”
“The caretaker calls from the cemetery to tell me Joaquin’s skull and most of his larger and longer bones are missing, but the thieves left some smaller pieces in his grave and I should come by later this morning to collect them.”
Sold! Tell me more.
And so we keep reading, and find out that Joaquin had been a priest and that his bones had been unearthed by “Paleros,” adherents of a religious tradition with roots in Africa. Joaquin’s sister, Ana, wants to rebury the shards that remain, but no cemeteries will accommodate her — they’re afraid of becoming targets of the grave robbers.
The discovery coincides with a surprise visit from a former lover, Marco, who had been unfaithful to her and had left Cuba years earlier to emigrate to Ecuador. He’d tried to persuade her join to him, but she couldn’t bring herself to leave because she “didn’t believe in the fracturing of families in the name of immigration” or “the myth that a better life awaited elsewhere.”
Now Marco is talking about spending more time in Cuba. He might buy property.
“You watch Cuba like a movie on one of your TV channels,” she tells him. “From far away, you see changes. If you’d stayed here you would see life is the way it has always been.”
Reading about Marco and Ana, and the others we meet in this fine work of fiction, one can’t help but think the world isn’t so far away after all. It’s right here in front of us. All we have to do is open our eyes.
Manuel Roig-Franzia is a Washington Post staff writer who was previously the paper’s bureau chief in Miami and in Mexico City.
The Faraway World
By Patricia Engel
Avid Reader Press. 224 pp. $26
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