Looking for books set in Latin America to expand your Summer reading list? I’ve got some recommendations.
Exploring a culture is always interesting, but it’s made more fantastic when you can immerse yourself in the surroundings, read the dialogues and experience the setting from varied perspectives. With that in mind, here are a few of my favourite books set in Latin America. Maybe you’ll add a couple of them to your reading list too! Where available, I’ve included links to my book reviews already posted here on Over The Andes.
Some of my favourite novels set in Latin America
I’ll start the list with an author you might know quite well already. You may even have read books by her: Isabel Allende. My top picks from her are The House of Spirits and Eva Luna. Both stories are steeped in the magical realism that characterizes Allende’s works and both stories take readers on a journey through non-named Latin American countries, during turbulent times in their history. Many of the events occurring in these novels are based on very real incidents.
The House of Spirits has been a favourite book of mine since I first read it, sometime while I was at university. I was studying Latin American History at the time and found the parallels to the Chilean dictatorship to be chilling. A brutal time in the country’s history I’d explored through textbooks and lectures is laid more bare through the fictional Trueba family, who could be modelled on any one of many real life families of the time. It was through this book that I gained an appreciation for magical realism, a genre I struggled with as an A’level Spanish student. The mix of real with imagined veers into the land of possible even if improbable. It is the perfect place for Clara’s gifts to be shadowed by Esteban Trueba’s unforgiving realism.
Having enjoyed one of Allende’s books so thoroughly and ending up far more open to the vagaries of magical realism, I now delight in novels by The House of Spirits author. Eva Luna is equally magical, if not even more so. As Eva travels around her unnamed Latin American country, her gift of storytelling grows magnified a hundred times by the extraordinary events she witnesses and the unlikely path her life takes. The characters are so diverse and enchanting you wonder how they all appear seamlessly in the same book.
Allende’s novels set in Latin America don’t only consider the 19th century. In her 2005 novel, Zorro we journey through the life of Diego de la Vega during the colonial era. What a rich tapestry is woven here. Diego’s very origins; a mix of his mestiza mother’s indigenous fire, spirit and darker skin mingles with his father’s pure, noble Spanish blood. He is a beloved son who learns the push and pull of duty and honour vs privilege and birthright. When the greed and corruption of the colonisers infringe on the lives and traditions of those who roamed and cherished the land almost since time began, it is Zorro who emerges. The setting of the novel explores the social inequities of the times while the story line delivers breath-taking adventure, with the odd touch of humour.
Another story rich in magical realism is this 2019 release by Sofía Segovia, The Murmur of Bees. My favourite read of 2019, in fact. The story takes readers to a Mexico during the Mexican Revolution and shows the perspective of the wealthy but hard-working Morales family. An added point of interest, given current affairs, is that the story also deals with the influenza of 1918 that wiped out thousands. Social distancing was an important tool then too. Read to see how the Morales family tried to keep their family and workers safe.
This next one has been a favourite since my post-graduate days. I re-read it a few years ago and now use excerpts in selected lectures. The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts by Louis de Bernieres is set in another unnamed South American country (that bears a striking resemblance to Colombia). The tale of guerillas, the indigenous, the wealthy, corrupt politicians and cold-hearted officers of the armed forces is woven together through the individual stories of varied players. Where they intersect we find humour, poignancy and tragedy.
Author Chanel Cleeton was a recent discovery for me. I read Next Year in Havana in 2018 and just earlier this year, read the follow-up When We Left Cuba. I loved both of these novels, centered around two of the Perez sisters; sugar heiresses forced to flee Cuba in the wake of the 1959 revolution. What I found most compelling about these stories is how the author weaves accurate factual details of the historical events with very moving fictional stories. The varied perspectives presented allow readers to process the gamut of opinions and stereotypes that the issue of the Cuban revolution bestows.
Next Year in Havana centres around the pre-revolution days and builds up to the events of 1959. The lives and routines of an elite Cuban family is explored and explained, broken up by the reality of guerrilla fighting and zest for change. The story is told from a dual timeline perspective and the ideas of revolution and liberty pervade both time periods. What in one generation was a release, for another becomes a yoke.
When We Left Cuba, then explores the aftermath of the revolution for the Perez family, who were forced to flee Cuba and re-establish in Florida. The intricate and masterful spy game played out between the United States and Cuba and the USSR is elucidated from the perspective of Beatriz… the former sugar heiress who uses her beauty and intelligence to infiltrate Castro’s circle. Two themes richly explored in this novel are the role of women, both in Cuba and in the U.S. and Cuban patriotism, a deep, unyielding love for country that is claimed by both sides of the political spectrum.
Not all of these suggestions are historical fiction, though. Early last year I discovered author Suanne Laqueur and her Venery series. Book 1 is An Exaltation of Larks and although it is a contemporary novel set mostly in New York, two of the main characters are Latino. One carries the scars of escaping Chile under Pinochet. The other struggles to merge his understanding of what it means to be a man, in his Dominican culture, with his confusion over his sexual identity. The narrative is strong, emotional and raw.
A book intended for a younger audience is Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina. This novel, appropriate for middle grade upwards, takes a look at bullying in an inner-city American school. The question of what a Latina is “supposed to look like” is also explored.
Another story featuring a young heroine, this one of Puerto Rican heritage is With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo. I’ve only just started it and can’t wait to get further into the story. The novel details, not just the afro-Latina identity of the protagonist, but also the uphill battle faced by a teen mother. The author wanted to showcase the ‘after’. What happens after the teen mother decides to keep her baby and the baby is born. Another major theme is how Emoni Santiago navigates more than one cultural identity… her Afro-Latino heritage. She wants to be a chef and her culture, both sides, are explored through her love for cooking.
Another more contemporary novel, set in Chile, is Ten Women by Marcela Serrano. Nine very different women tell their tales of love, loss, grief, torment and challenge. Difficult themes explored include infidelity, incest, rape, aging, sexuality, PTSD and caring for persons with debilitating mental illness. Each woman’s story is a window into her personal trauma and an explanation of how she is willing and able to accept help. The stories help us travel through Chile, from the elegant and depressing sides of Santiago to the Pacific coast, the Atacama desert and to the undisturbed countryside of Ñuble. Where these women live affect their experiences and so it is incorporated into the tale well.
Travel isn’t quite happening for many of us this vacation period so I’m going on a virtual holiday of sorts. Through my imagination and some amazing authors I might even engage in some time travel!
In terms of books set in Latin America, here’s the list of books I’m hoping to get to this vacation period:
The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea, set in late 19th-century Mexico, is the mystical drama of a young woman’s sudden sainthood.
In The Time Of Butterflies by Julia Alvarez, set in the Dominican Republic during Trujillo’s dictatorship, tells the story of four sisters who stood in opposition to it.
The Price of Paradise by Susana López Rubio is set amid the wealth, luxury and mafia of pre-revolutionary Cuba; and tells the story of a young man crazy enough to fall in love with a mobster’s wife.
Clap When you Land by Elizabeth Acevedo, set in both the Dominican Republic and the United States, tells the story of two sisters who discover each other upon the untimely death of their father.
Are you reading any books set in Latin America soon? Have you read any of the ones listed above? Do you have any favourites you’d like to recommend? Drop a message in the comments and let me know!
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