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Review | ‘The Faraway World’ brings the immigrant experience a little closer


The next time you see a woman pushing a stroller down the sidewalk, take a look at the people walking nearby. If you look closely, you might see their eyes blink, a look down at the little person and a look up at the woman doing the steering wheel. At that moment a calculation is made: mom or babysitter? Those flickering observations, verbalized or not, can determine the parameters of social engagement and hierarchy.

A Colombian immigrant who appears in Patricia Engel’s scintillating short story collection, “The Faraway World,” understands this interaction well; she is disgusted that she is often mistaken for the nanny while taking her daughter for a walk. She’d gotten used to it but still resented being treated like the other since she’d come to the States to marry a twice-divorced Home Depot executive she’d met through an agency that matches American men to Colombian women. The people of their town always “look at us strangely,” her husband notes, and police officers always ask for his wife’s green card during traffic checks, even though she has become a US citizen.

Patricia Engel’s ‘Infinite Country’ focuses on the psychological pain of a family split apart

A 200-page book of grievances about the treatment of immigrants can be quite daunting to read. But what makes Engel’s collection of stories so rich and compelling is that the Colombian-American author places her stories in the context of universal themes: the compromises we make for love, the lies we tell ourselves and others, betrayal, paranoia , sadness, 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 twins have disappeared from their quiet New York suburb, and a Colombian immigrant girl whose fraught relationship with her employer makes her feel that her job is actually “paid companionship.”

“Love doesn’t have to be exquisite to be true,” she laments.

There is also Flor, a 26-year-old woman in Havana, who thinks that if she promises the Saints that she will attend a church every day—300 and more to come—will get her aunt in San Diego to agree to her as a relative and allow her to move to the United States.

“I don’t want to love anything on this island,” says Flor. “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 all over Miami. Her dreams collide with her reality.

“Sometimes love hits you like a drunk driver on Memorial Day weekend,” she says. “Actually a tragedy, but you don’t care because you’re the victim anyway and there’s no hope left.”

Engel, an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Miami, knows how to quickly attract — and keep — readers. 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 a chance you wouldn’t want to turn off your phone’s ringer and curl up on the couch to see where she goes?

A poignant story about the violent risks faced by journalists in Mexico

In ‘The Faraway World’ Engel lures you again and again with irresistible opening lines.

“My friend Paola had an American boyfriend who paid for her new breasts.”

“The caretaker calls from the cemetery to tell me that 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 pick them up. to get.”

And so we keep reading and discover that Joaquin had been a priest and his bones had been exhumed by “Paleros”, followers of a religious tradition with roots in Africa. Ana, Joaquin’s sister, wants to rebury the remaining shards, but no cemetery will be able to accommodate her – they are afraid of being targeted by the grave robbers.

The discovery coincides with a surprise visit from a former lover, Marco, who had been unfaithful to her and left Cuba years earlier to emigrate to Ecuador. He had tried to persuade her to join him, but she couldn’t bring herself to leave because she “didn’t believe in breaking up families in the name of immigration” or “the myth that a better life could be found elsewhere.” waited’.

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Now Marco is talking about spending more time in Cuba. He could buy real estate.

“You watch Cuba like a movie on one of your TV channels,” she tells him. ‘From afar, you see changes. If you had stayed here, you would see that life is as it always has been.”

When you read about Marco and Ana, and the others we meet in this beautiful work of fiction, you can’t help but think that the world isn’t that 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 contributor and previously served as bureau chief in Miami and Mexico City.

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