In Angie Cruz’s third novel, shortlisted for The Women’s Prize for Fiction, a young country girl is trapped by circumstance in a patriarchal society on the brink of civil war. Forced into marriage with a violent, alcoholic man twice her age, fifteen-year-old protagonist Ana Canción carries the burden of her family’s future on her young shoulders.
Cruz draws us into a first-person, present tense narrative, evoking images of innocence and a nostalgia of young daughters that make us smile:
The first time Juan Ruiz proposes I’m eleven years old, skinny and flat chested. I’m half asleep, my frizzy hair has busted out from a rubber band, and my dress is on backwards.
This could be the recounting of a first love, but our smiles fade as ‘tears rise’ in Ana’s eyes when she realises ‘one day the earth will rip open underneath my feet and Juan will take me away.’
The titular, faceless ceramic doll, bought in the airport of the Dominican Republic on Ana and Juan’s wedding night, is a recurring motif, powerfully symbolic of a child bride:
My sweet, hollow Dominicana will keep all my secrets: she has no eyes, no lips, no mouth.
There is no ceremony or celebration, just a gaudy pink dress, a forged passport, and a cheap bottle of champagne that Ana drinks ‘like the medicinal juices Mamá makes’ to numb the fear, then the ‘short and sharp’ pain of her consummation.
Once settled in America, Ana hides money inside the doll to send to her family. Our reactions to the grim reality of her plight are visceral and we sympathise, but Cruz’s skill is such that we have faith in Ana’s strength and wisdom to do what is necessary to survive, whether that be in the face of Juan’s brutal attacks, or her quirky deviance in the name of retribution which Cruz accomplishes with satiating humour: ‘Let’s see who will pay, Juan?’ Ana thinks, as she prepares to feed ‘the sad clown’ a pigeon she captures. Nevertheless, Cruz deftly evokes empathy for Juan’s situation. He too is trapped in a loveless marriage that equates to little more than a financial transaction, and although his treatment of Ana is inexcusable Cruz provides the means for us to understand him, as he writes in a letter to his lover:
Please forgive me. I so desperately want to be with you but the situation is complicated.
Short, compelling chapters, divided into six sections illuminate important milestones as Ana matures from girl to woman, housed in a tiny flat in New York against the far-reaching and turbulent political backdrop of 1960’s America; Cruz’s portrayal of the marginalisation of immigrant women is demonstrable within current affairs today. When Juan is forced to fly home due to political unease, his young brother, Cesar, infuses colour into Ana’s life, allowing her a taste of a life that could be.
Writing in The Guardian, Hephzibah Anderson criticizes Cruz’s lack of detail in her portrayal of cultural nuances both in the Dominican Republic and the immigrant community in New York. But this is a story of a young girl removed from her country and forbidden by her husband to integrate with her own culture, never mind that of America. Cruz reflects this in the dichotomy of Ana’s memories of home and what she experiences in New York, colouring the narrative with memories like snapshots, just enough to place us amongst:
coconuts, mangoes, sugar cane and palms. The sea was thick with fish, the sky so full of birds we couldn’t even see the sun.
Before pulling us back to her new world in New York where Ana muses about ‘the bright sun, you’d think it’s hot like back home’ and the way the ‘cold [is] trapped inside my bones.’
In this compelling story inspired by Cruz’s own mother, we learn what it means to be an immigrant woman, disenfranchised, yet strong.