It’s about the life of a 15-year-old girl called Ana, who moves illegally to New York from the Dominican Republic in 1960s. The book follows Ana through her first year in this new city where she learnt to say ‘my name is Ana’ in English, where she was to trust no one and keep her eyes down, where there is violence in the streets as well as behind locked doors. But on her survival and flourishing, her family set their hopes for the future.

Writing that opening paragraph makes me realise what a broad and fascinating range of subjects Ana’s life entails. The author said in the Acknowledgements that this novel was inspired by her mother’s true story which many Dominicans in the US shared.

The novel touches on many topics concerning immigrants, but it doesn’t go very far or deep with them. Once an international student myself, I can empathise with some of her experience too. I could feel Ana’s struggle and suffering using my imagination to fill in the gaps but I’d have liked the book to have worked a bit harder. I want to read and think, ‘this is unbelievable and incredible. I really feel for her’, rather than, ‘it was tough for me, I guess it must be even worse for her’. There is so much more the book could have done but strangely didn’t.

Another complaint is that the blurb on the back cover basically gives away most of the story in two paragraphs. There’s almost no point reading the three hundred pages between the covers.

The Fierce Mother

One thing that comes through really strongly is the relationship between Ana and her mother. Almost everything Ana does is for her mother in one way or another.

Ana is forced into this marriage at the age of fifteen to a man in his thirties ultimately because her mother wishes it so. The man has settled in New York, and Ana can go as his wife. Then the whole family will move to New York. Ana’s feelings and marriage are sacrificed for the sake of her mother and her family.

When Ana is lonely and physically abused in New York, all the mother talks about on the phone is commanding Ana to send money, to send stuff, to get a visa for her and other family members, as soon as possible. When the mother arrives, she is scared of taking the lift and Ana, heavily pregnant, walks up six floors with her. She criticises Ana’s cooking, cleaning, being a wife. “Out on the street she’s a mouse, inside the apartment she’s a lion.”

But when Ana is hurt by another, the lioness holds her cub close and bares her teeth. They are fighting side by side again. The emotions and feelings are complicated between Ana and her mother. But as I mentioned earlier, I wish the author could have developed it fuller, rather than comment on it cooly in one paragraph.

There’s not much more to say about this book. To be honest, if it wasn’t shortlisted for the Women’s Prize I would never have picked it up. Apologies that sounds a bit depressing. Truth be told, if I could go back in time, I wouldn’t read it again.

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