“When has anyone official in this country ever told the truth? I’ve been alive for nearly eighty years and I’ve never seen it. Not once. There are people missing . . .”
We know about how Fidel and Raúl Castro Ruz overthrew the dictator Fulgencio Batista during the 1953–59 Cuban Revolution, and that Cuba became a communist thorn in the side of America under the leadership of Fidel Castro, Moscow’s communist ally in the United States’ back yard. But what was it like living day-by-day through the revolution, that moment in time when history altered its course?
Told through the eyes of a thirteen-year-old who lives with her family in Marianao, a quiet suburb six miles away from Old Havana, The Art of White Roses gives an intimate view of the struggles of the working people fighting for independence fueled by a burning desire to end the corruption of Batista, the president who tortured them. “If one day America or Batista or somebody decides to fuck with our city, turn streets into brothels, and have murderers run the economy, do you know what those people do? They go on. They go on and they pretend like nothing’s happening and maybe — that’s what they think in their heads — maybe things will turn out all right. Don’t make a fuss and I can go on living, that’s what they think. But what about everyone else? What about those shirtless kids in the slums by the baseball stadium? What they get is hell, la casa del carajo. No one does anything.”
Adela’s cousin, Miguel, is caught up in a bomb blast at the ritzy Hotel Nacional on the Malecon where high-enders and mobsters hang out; the Presidential Palace is attacked; and Tío Rodrigo “comes home from his job as a policeman with his hand wrapped up from punching a man in the face, blood bleeding in speckles through the bandage.”
Her father has a decrepit shoe shop in Old Havana, “his workbench in the back was strewn with old shoes and bits of people’s soles and loose shoelaces.” Her parents fight; their marriage is in the doldrums. Her brother Pingüino is in trouble at school for playing pranks on Sister Juana “who always calls him stupid,” and when he puts lizards in her desk he is cautioned. Gunshots pop-pop-pop in the distance while Sister Tula smack-smack-smacks María Viramontes with her bendy, wooden ruler because the girl is left-handed. “According to Sister Tula, ‘All God’s children use their right hands.’ María was a nice girl with a soft, round face, but she cried easily. When the tears started streaming and her face went red, Sister Tula got even madder. ‘¿Eres estúpida o qué?’ And she’d smack her again.”
Adela’s father hates the Americans because “they were the reason for the drugs, and the prostitutes, and the casinos. They were the reason Havana was dangerous, the reason for the poverty. If you walked a little way down the street, you saw the kids on the sidewalks and their mothers with their skirts stained. And it was all the Americans’ fault, according to Papi. We were lucky, he said. Very lucky.”
There are rumours about neighbours who are rebels. Young twenty-something Rafi Consuelo disappears, as does Anita Valle, “another former University of Havana student, nineteen years old. She was a pretty, flat-chested black girl who’d babysat Pingüino and I around a year ago. She was known around the neighbourhood for her first-rate brain.” An atmosphere of uncertainty and paranoia takes hold.
Adela’s father meets Celia at Jorge Luciano’s bachelor party, and she falls in love with him. She wants to stop working as prostitute, but is beaten up by her mobster-pimp, so runs to her lover to be saved, putting everyone in danger. “I couldn’t understand how Papi had picked Celia over Mami, how he could ignore the life they had built and choose someone like Celia instead.” Her parents are in a quandary. Do they stay or do they go?
The Art of White Roses is a striking debut by an up-and-coming young adult fiction writer. It is well-paced and has a cast of engaging characters. It is also a sharp-eyed study of power and community, responsibility and questioning values, and the contradictory messages of adults. Viviana Prado-Núñez based Adela on her grandmother who “played a huge part in how I visualized Cuba in the 1950s.” Her astute observations and outspoken, entrancing voice make it impossible not to be drawn in. Keep an eye out on this fresh new voice on the Caribbean scene.
The Art of White Roses by Viviana Prado-Núñez |Papillote Press PB 192pp 7.99 GBP | Winner of the 2017 Burt Award for Caribbean Young Adult Literature | ISBN 9781999776824