Vida/Patricia Engel: Reflections

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Last night I was explaining to my brother how you don't get perfect from perfect.  Glass deflects, I said.  Airtight frames let no one in.  You get perfect from raw and real, from quest and search, from words that feel ripped out, not placed.  You get it from writing that honors bewilderment, that shapes it, even, from stories and language that make you feel.  I said these things, and then I went to bed and when I woke up I read Vida, Patricia Engel's debut collection (Black Cat), from start to finish.

Exhibit A:  My kind of perfect.

You're going to want to know what Engel's stories are about.  I'm going to tell you to go read them.  To find out what a writer born to Colombian parents and raised in New Jersey and residing now in Florida makes of a character named Sabina, who shares at least some of her author's lineage.  Sabina carries these stories; mostly she tells them.  She takes us into shame, confusion, unrest, dishonor, one version or another of love, and of love's betrayals.  She gives us ascent and tip and instability, and in every single story, I believed I was reading the true.  I believed that a woman could hurt like this, want like this, wish herself to be someone other than this.  I believed a woman living this kind of life would make this kind of poetry.  The point is:  I believed.

And can we talk about language?  Can I give you this?
Just when I've beaten the night, I feel his arm on me.  Lou shaking me from my half sleep, his muscular fingers tugging my skin.  The darkness breaks with the glow of the street, spots of car lights on the walls, shining right through Lou so he looks as if he has a halo.  He turns on a lamp.  He's got a guitar hanging from a strap on his back and another, which he hands to me.  I sit up, let the quilt become a pond around my waist.  Take the guitar from him and run my fingertips over the fat metal strings.
That's from a story called "Refuge," the hands-down best post-9/11 piece of writing I've ever read.  Because 9/11 is both backdrop and mood, but it isn't, ultimately, the story.

Patricia Engel does not need me to sing her praises.  Vida is, among other things, a New York Times Notable Book of 2010, a Barnes & Noble Best Book of the Year, a New York Times Editors' Choice, and a Los Angeles Times Gift Guide Selection.  It is the debut that Junot Diaz said he'd been waiting for.

Vida is alive.  It trembles.


Becca said...

With such high praise from you, and with such a stunning sample to tease me, how can I resist? I have Barnes and Noble gift cards burning a hole in my pocket...guess what I'll be buying?

Anna Lefler said...

Wow. What a smokin' sample you've shared with us, Beth.

And, as always, your insight makes it all come together on all levels.

Thanks for this - for many reasons...



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