[easyazon_image align=”left” height=”333″ identifier=”1501178776″ locale=”US” src=”http://englewoodreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/51kT4xASuXL.jpg” tag=”douloschristo-20″ width=”222″]Tinged with Sadness and Hope
A Feature Review of
Hardback: Simon & Schuster, 2018.
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Reviewed by Brent Bill
Samuel Park, of Korean descent, was born in Brazil and raised in southern California. His protagonist in The Caregiver is Mara Alencar, born in Brazil and living as an adult in southern California. There is one other intersection, as well. More on that later.
The novel opens in Bel Air, California in the early 1990s when Mara is a twenty-six year old caregiver to Kathryn Weatherly, a forty-four year old divorced woman with no children who’s fighting stomach cancer. Mara lives with fellow Brazilian ex-pats Renata and Bruno in the “not-so-nice part of Hollywood, close to the 101 freeway.” Renata has her Green Card. Mara and Bruno do not.
The novel quickly travels back in time and place to Rio de Janeiro in the late 70s when Mara is eight. There she lives with her mother Ana who is her universe. Ana makes ends meet at as a voice-over actress. With only each other, Ana and Mara are caregivers to each other.
Ana wants more than the meager wages she earns dubbing American films into Portuguese. Her skill as an actress provides her with a dangerous opportunity to make a significant sum by collaborating with a rebel group to thwart a brutal police chief terrorizes and tortures his enemies. Ana’s performing this role eventually ends in Mara having to flee the country. Which is how she ends up in southern California.
Throughout Park’s tale we are part of Mara’s adventure, and an adventure it is, of coming of age in dangerous times, being an immigrant, caregiving, and learning the truths of her mother and her lives. About caregiving, in this case for her dying mother, and life Mara says, “I’d always adored my mother, but since her illness, my heart grew with the strange love that fills one’s heart when one gives, gives, and receives little in return… I decided, that though humans were wired toward selfishness in their everyday lives, given the opportunity, a person could give another everything, and that all of us were just waiting for the chance to do that.”
To say much more about what happens would ruin the book for the reader. Suffice it to say, Park was a masterful story-teller who populates this novel with fascinating characters. We meet the flamboyant transvestite Janete who lives next door to Mara and Ana and often serves as a caregiver to Mara, the police chief Lima and his teenage son, the rebels, and others. Each is equally well portrayed and sympathetic – often unexpectedly so. And the plot turns and twists in interesting and surprising ways.
In addition to being a good read, The Caregiver explores themes of relationships, being dislocated from one’s home due to circumstances beyond one’s control, and connection – connection between people close to us and profoundly different than us.
The Caregiver also holds interest to me as writer regarding is the whole matter of point of view. Ana is a Brazilian woman born in Copacabana. Park is a man. How can he truthfully tell her story? There are some folks who say he can’t. That sort of criticism is what a panel of us writers discussed this earlier summer. Such disapproval was inhibiting a good many of the aspiring writers at the conference where the panel was held. Certainly, the panel agreed, in writing non-fiction we have to ask whose story is it to tell? But we also agreed that in fiction, the imagination and ability to place ourselves and our writing in the lives of people that are not like us is powerful and life changing for the writer and reader.
Finally, a few words about the other intersection I mentioned in the opening of this room. Kathryn Weatherly battled stomach cancer at age forty-four in this novel. Samuel Park died of stomach cancer at age forty-one shortly after completing it. The poignancy of that intersection informs The Caregiver and makes it, both tragically and redemptively, more insightful and compelling than it otherwise might have been. Park, a gifted and much heralded writer, obviously brought all his skills and heart to bear in this book. It is tinged with sadness and hope and speaks truth. I say that, because I finished this book just one year after my son Chris died of colon cancer at age forty-three. As Mara says towards the end of the novel, “Nothing … had fundamentally changed – the sun still shone too much, the birds were still chirping in tune – but just like that, nothing seemed the same, either.”
Brent Bill is a writer, writing teacher, photographer, and Quaker minister. He lives on Ploughshares Farm in rural Indiana which has been converted from production agriculture to a tall grass prairie and woods filled with native trees. His most recent book is [easyazon_link identifier=”B01N16UX9Z” locale=”US” tag=”douloschristo-20″]Holy Silence: The Gift of Quaker Spirituality[/easyazon_link], 2nd edition. His next book, Beauty, Truth, Life, and Love will be released by Paraclete Press in September 2019.