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Still Water Saints by Alex Espinoza



The book opens at the calendar page for January 6: Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord & Dia de los Reyes. Magi and Kings of Africa, Arabia and the East. Patrons of Travellers.

Still Water Saints by Alex Espinoza

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Buy Still Water Saints by Alex Espinoza at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com

Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Espinoza writing about his home territory gives an entrancing insight into the forgotten worlds between California and Mexico. Unfortunately the link holding them all together isn't strong enough to turn what could have been a great collection of short stories into a novel.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 256 Date: July 2007
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-0330446020

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In the beginning we are told about Perla, though she is not mentioned by name. We learn that she could walk on water, chanted to the moon and the gods of the night. That she summoned the spirits of the dead and all kinds of scary voodoo things. But also that the she helped people who had nowhere else to turn... or who had turned elsewhere and needed to turn again.

She was a Bruja. A Santa. A Divina. A Medium, Prophet, and Healer. Actually, as we will learn through the pages that follow, she was an old woman, with compassion, a knowledge of natural remedies and a certain insight into the plights of people. Whether there is more to it... you must judge as did the people of Angua Mansa.

Angua Mansa is where Perla keeps the Botánica Oshún - a modern-day shop that is part herbalist, part Christian artefactory, part new-age spell haven. A place where people come to seek candles and incense and charms, where they come for small pictures of the saints to remind them of their prayers and rosaries to help them pray them.

Still Water Saints is a strange book and perhaps one that needs putting in context. According to the publisher's website, the author Alex Espinoza was born in Tijuana, Mexico and raised in La Puente, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. He has worked as a used appliance salesman, a gardener, a retail manager, and an egg candler on a chicken farm. All of these influences echo loudly through this book. How the author crossed into the U.S. is not commented upon, but being of Mexican birth, and living in La Puente he will have known those who came both legally and otherwise, those who came in search of a dream and found it (or not) and also those on the downslide from the riches of the U.S. as well as those moving on up. That he knows whereof he speaks is evident throughout.

Sense of place is becoming a much over-worked phrase in my reviews, but I can find no other way to adequately express that capturing of an essence that goes beyond description of the what, where and how... beyond the sights and the smells... into the nuances of speech and actions and relationships. For me it is what can lift the so-called 'lyrical' novels out of the mediocre into the brilliant. Skill in the use of language can produce a lyrical work of some beauty... but if it doesn't at the same time 'capture the essence' it will only be of 'some' beauty.

Espinoza has it.

Unfortunately in this case it isn't quite enough for other quite completely different reasons.

The primary problem is announced on the frontispiece, where it says: Still Water Saints: A Novel.

As a novel, Still Water Saints falls short. According to the blurb the book chronicles a momentous year in the life of Agua Mansa, whereas in fact it is difficult to see what exactly is momentous about this year in the life of the town. There are changes, large and small, some of which will impact greatly on individual characters but there is nothing which fundamentally changes the life of Agua Mansa, which will go on much as before.

There is no significant single plot development... no over-riding conflict to be challenged or resolved. To that extent I found it "unsatisfying".

That last word is chosen carefully. As distinct from "unsatisfactory".

I finished the book, not feeling 'cheated' but feeling that I was missing something, that something had been withheld.

If we were to remove the words A Novel from that frontispiece (and maybe do a little editing out of the more spurious links) then as a collection of linked short stories, I would take a much more upbeat view of the book.

To explain:

We are taken through the year in a serious of snapshots:

  • January 6th - Feast of the Epiphany
  • February 14th - Feast of St Valentine
  • March 24th - Feast of St Gabriel the Archangel
  • May 20th - Feast of St Bernardine of Siena
  • June 24th - Feast of San Juan Soldado
  • October 4th - Feast of St Francis of Assisi
  • November 17th - St Gregory the Wonder Worker
  • December 12th - Feast of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe

Each of these has a "calendar" page giving the date, the feast day and those causes in respect of which the Saint should be petitioned... whilst many of these are traditional and well known, I was intrigued and pleased to find the Saints being assigned new duties in our modern troubled times: thus St Valentine is assigned greeting card manufacturers; St Gabriel as the patron saint of messengers finds himself lumbered with diplomats, broadcasters & stamp collectors among others; poor St Bernardine must wonder how she drew advertisers; and so on. My personal favourite San Juan: patron of illegal immigrants.

Generally the section will then proceed with a vignette from Perla's perspective before switching into a segment of the life of another of the inhabitants of Agua Mansa. These tales from the Mansa are always told first person, and it can take a while to settle into the new voice. The number of new voices we encounter is what undermines the piece as "as novel" but which becomes irrelevant if each feast day is taken as a short story. Among the people we meet are Juan, a man who is yet to come to terms with the death of his father - or at least so he is told by the women in his life; the recently married Nancy; the overweight Rosa struggling to be herself in the face of those who'd have her be something else. Along the way we meet troubled strangers of uncertain past, and troubling teenagers with a clear view of their future. Stories of mixed-race relationships and pregnancies treasured, unwanted and not happening. All of the run of everyday life in the southern U.S. All of them are anchored around the Botánica Oshún, but as a diverging web, rather than a continuous progression. There are links and cross paths, but one feels that if you broke the side-strands the spokes would stand stronger on their own.

Some characters reappear throughout the year, others make a single appearance. All are, however, succinctly and believably portrayed. Even where they recur in other tales, the stories in which they are introduced do still stand as individual pieces.

Which brings me back to that 'sense of place'. What Espinoza gives us is a number of personal stories deeply embedded in the nature of the town in which they're played out. He draws us in to the confused fractured beliefs of people on the edges of society, who will consult their medics, but then check with their faith healers. He shows us how faiths can be manipulated, but how ultimately they tie back to a much older intrinsic belief in the ability of 'the existence' (planet, universe, gods, spirits, sun, water, plants, people) to help us when we cannot help ourselves.

The smattering of Spanish throughout assists in evoking a township where people slip easily between the two languages... with my limited knowledge I occasionally found this frustrating... for the complete non-linguists (& given that there is no glossary) it might prove simply irritating.

As much as one hates not to give a clear recommendation, I really have to sit on the fence with this book.

There were lots of snippets that I loved embedded in the detail of the various religious practices (Catholic, Caribbean, ancient African... modern twists on all). Some of the people I came to care about, which underlines the quality of the writing.

But: As a novel it simply isn't strong enough.

As a collection of short stories, bound by a thread, it would need a bit more editing, but could be brilliant.

Thanks go to the publishers for sending this book to The Bookbag.

If you enjoy this type of book then you might also like Red Dog by Louis de Bernieres.

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Buy Still Water Saints by Alex Espinoza at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Still Water Saints by Alex Espinoza at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Still Water Saints by Alex Espinoza at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Still Water Saints by Alex Espinoza at Amazon.com.

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