This book first crossed my radar when it was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize in 2020. Most of us were under severe lockdown restrictions at that time, of course, and spending much of our social and cultural lives on video platforms. This was quite liberating for those of us living outside major cities; lots of cultural outlets, whose activities had been shut down by the pandemic, were forced to seek new sources of income and found them by broadcasting live-streamed Zoom events which anyone anywhere could join. The National Theatre (like other theatres across the globe) had been doing this for years of course with its NT Live and Encore programmes where performances are streamed into regional cinemas, but everyone suddenly got in on the act and it was great! I do live near a major city (Manchester, England), but still most events in the publishing world take place in London. One such event, in the past, has been the Women’s Prize talks, interviews with the shortlisted authors, but in 2020 we were all able to participate, and I even had a question answered!
It was a very strong field in 2020 (it always is!) which included Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet (the eventual winner that year), the final part of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, and Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. Both of the latter books were also Booker Prize shortlisted, Evaristo having won it (jointly with Margaret Atwood) in 2019. When I heard Angie Cruz talking about her book I knew I had to read it. She described it as about the immigrant experience, of a young, naïve girl, moving from her rural home in the Dominican Republic (a small and at that time turbulent nation in the Caribbean Antilles that shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti). Ana, the central character, has been married off at the age of fifteen to a suitor who is more than twice her age, who plans to take her with him to New York City. Juan Ruiz is a businessman, the eldest of three brothers who have created modest commercial interests in America, but in Dominica they are the local bigwigs who boast of much greater wealth and power than they actually have, particularly Juan. Ana’s mother sees a chance for the whole family to benefit from Juan’s interest in her daughter; she forces her daughter into the marriage in the hope that the whole family will eventually be able to emigrate to America and make a much better life in the land of opportunity.
On arrival in New York, it soon becomes apparent that Ana has been sold a pup. Juan’s business empire is little more than small-scale trading that he runs out of the apartment to which he now confines his new young wife. Ana is forced to cook and clean for Juan, his cronies and his brothers. Juan forces her to stay indoors and keeps her imprisoned by convincing her that the world outside their door is a place of terror. They reside in a part of town where there are outbreaks of violence associated with the civil rights movement and where sirens seem to blare constantly. Ana has been told that her family will soon join her (Ana mainly misses her brother and wants him to be able to get an American education) but Juan clearly has no intention of facilitating this. It is not entirely clear what Juan wants from Ana; yes, he expects his conjugal rights, but he also has a New York lover, a woman his own age. Ana is little more than a slave.
Juan takes a business trip back to the Dominican Republic – political unrest there means he needs to sort out the family’s affairs. During his absence, Ana ventures beyond the apartment for the first time. She shops, starts English lessons given for free by a local nun and falls in love with Juan’s younger brother Cesar, who has been ordered to look after his sister-in-law and goes above and beyond the call of duty in this respect! By this time Ana is heavily pregnant, but with Cesar she has fun for the first time since she arrived in New York. Encouraged by Cesar, she starts selling her home-cooked pastries to the Dominicans working (mostly illegally) in the clothing factories. Ana begins to find her power.
This is a great story; the author described it as based loosely on her own family’s stories. It took me a long time to get to it – it was on my TBR pile for the best part of a year – and when I did get to it, it took me a long time to read. I’m not really sure why, but I couldn’t really get into it. I really wanted to love Ana, but I just did not feel she was fully developed. The chapters were short, the typeface on my edition was, oddly, tiny which made it quite difficult to read, and parts of it, I’m sad to say, just felt like a bit of a slog. There seems to be a bit of a fashion at the moment as well, for not using speech marks – has anyone else noticed this? Perhaps it is me, but I find this really jarring because you sometimes think you are still reading prose, when actually it is dialogue, or vice versa. This worked well in, for example, The Promise, last year’s Booker winner from Damon Galgut, but in Dominicana I found it problematic.
The story ends a bit abruptly for my taste, but not to have ended it where the author did would have entailed many more chapters so there is an argument for closure at that point. This is a powerful story, which needs to be told, but for me there was something missing in the telling.
Sort of recommended.