Book Review: The Storyteller’s Death by Ann Dávila Cardinal
When Isla Larsen Sanchez was eight years old, her mother Elena sent her to Puerto Rico by herself for the first time, flying from New Jersey in the care of a flight attendant, as was usual for the 1970s. Ordinarily, Isla would spend summers in the town where her mother grew up, with both her parents and extended family. But when Isla’s Scandinavian father falls ill, Elena decides to stay behind to care for him while sending Isla to stay with Elena’s formidable though loving Tia Alma.
Isla has no cause to doubt her grandaunt’s love for her, unlike her contentious relationship with Alma’s sister, her own grandmother Marisol. Abuela has always been exacting, if not outright cruel, to both her daughter and granddaughter. There is, however, no resisting the allure of her cuentista (storytelling) abilities, as an older Isla recalls them:
What I loved best was that her stories always had a hint of magic woven through them, like a silver thread that glinted now and again. My abuela was never particularly kind to me, always criticizing and pointing out where I fell short compared to my cousins, but her tales were funny and nostalgic, and it was never clear if they were true. And, as I would come to learn, it didn’t really matter.
When Tia Alma reacts poorly to an innocent exchange between Isla and Jose, the son of a native laborer, the first seeds of doubt are sown in Isla’s heart as to the uncompromising love of her beloved Puerto Rican family. Bad enough that her mother seems to be falling further and further into the bottle as the years go by. Things come to a head when Isla turns eighteen and begins to literally see the stories of her extended family come to life in increasingly intrusive ways.
With little to no support from the Sanchezes, Isla learns how to control these maddening visions by herself and lay them to rest. She’s actually rather intrigued by the ability these stories give her to consider her family history from a perspective otherwise left unspoken by her selectively tight-lipped relatives. But when the cuentos start to manifest in tangibly violent ways, Isla begins to fear for her physical safety, even before she finds herself witnessing the true circumstances of her great-grandfather’s death. According to her family, Bisabuelo had had a terminal illness. Her visions however show that he was murdered.
When her usual methods do nothing to lay this latest story to rest, Isla decides that the only way to stop the visions from recurring is to investigate what really happened that fateful day, no matter what ugly secrets she ends up bringing to light. Her granduncle Ramon, who is usually the most forthcoming of his generation, has this to tell her about his father:
“Those were difficult times here on the island. Your great-grandfather wanted to protect the life that his great-grandfather had built after arriving from España, and in his youth it was a time of great unrest. But he stayed strong and was proud of his pure blood, just two generations from Europe. And you should be too, Isla. Not one drop of blood, ni una gota de sangre, that is not European. Yes, you should be proud.” My great-uncle sat silently now, staring at the ground ahead of him.
Aghast at this racism but not quite sure how to grapple with it, Isla embarks on an investigation that has her confronting not only her island’s history of race and class prejudice, but also what it means to be an unwitting child of privilege who never quite feels like she belongs.
The Storyteller’s Death is a frank coming-of-age tale featuring a heroine thrust into adulthood by her mother’s negligence yet who somehow remains curiously unsophisticated. I very much sympathized with Isla’s constant discomfort at being on the periphery of her many and disparate social circles, even as I wondered what it was about her that made it so difficult for her to adapt, chameleon-like, as her cousin Maria did. While this was Ann Dávila Cardinal’s debut adult novel, it felt like it hadn’t really left behind the trappings of its Young Adult predecessors in her oeuvre, with a linear plot directing its naive heroine inexorably—and with only superficial self-examination—towards the truth.
For all that, it’s a moving novel that isn’t afraid to engage with important postcolonial issues as it seeks to reconcile Isla’s ideals with the truth about her family. It’s also a wonderful love letter to the natural and cultural beauty of Puerto Rico, particularly in the 1970s era in which it’s set. Above all, it’s a tribute to the power of storytelling, and to the legacy that stories can carry from one generation to the next.