DISCLAIMER – I was sent a free copy of this book in return for a fair and unbiased review
‘Oyá dresses in purple and dances alone, with a necklace of bones clicking around her throat.’
Juan, a Cuban construction worker who has settled in Albuquerque, returns to Havana for the first time since fleeing Cuba by raft twenty years ago. He is travelling with his American wife, Sharon, and hopes to reconnect with Victor, his best friend from college—and, unbeknownst to Sharon, he also hopes to discover what has become of two ex-girlfriends, Elsa and Rosita.
Juan is surprised to learn that Victor has become Victoria and runs a popular drag show at the local hot spot Café Arabia. Elsa has married a wealthy foreigner, and Rosita, still single, works at the Havana cemetery. When one of these women turns up dead, it will cost Padrino, a Santería priest and former detective on the Havana police force, more than he expects to untangle the group’s lies and hunt down the killer
What I thought
The first thing to note about this book is from the beginning it’s clear that it’s written by a Cuban. It’s full of all of the small details that would just get looked or given too much importance if it wasn’t written by someone who fully understands and has lived in that culture. Just the way that the city comes alive and the way that there are words that don’t translate properly so they’re not translated. It’s the perfect word it just doesn’t exist in English. I’m sure there was a lot that went over my head and that’s because it wasn’t in there for me and it shouldn’t have been.
Juan considers himself Cuban but he’s an exile from his homeland and doesn’t keep on top of the news or talk to people much from back home. So when he does go to Cuba he’s treated like a foreigner, they see him and think he looks American because of how he holds himself. He’s a stranger in a Havana that is full of ghosts but has changed in ways that he can’t imagine or get his head around. When Sharon asks him why he hasn’t booked a hotel the answer is obvious, why would he want to stay in a hotel in his home? He doesn’t want to have to admit how much things have changed for him or for Cuba. So when Víctor tells him that she’s now Victoria he really struggles to get his head around it. Because it doesn’t match with his memory or with the Cuba that he thought he knew. I really love how this book dealt with LGBT rights in Southern America right now, how things are moving forward but slowly and how that’s reflected in the words people use and the various spiritual beliefs. I think if Juan found out that one of his American friends was trans he’d be fine with it but he can’t reconcile trans with the Cuba that he fled.
‘Queen of bones‘ deals really well with the concept of not fitting in anywhere and being a foreigner at home as well as the concept of exile. The refugee crisis is still a big deal in the world and in the media – although because it’s been going on so long it’s not as prevalent as it was a couple of years ago. But it’s easy to forget that it’s not new, people have had to flee war torn lands or seek political refuge for hundreds of years, looking for a place of safety and somewhere to call home. A lot of the refugees would say that they want to go back home, but there’s no doubt that if and when they do what they find isn’t going to match what they left behind. The world changed and so did they.
Juan is torn between being Cuban and being American and subsequently doesn’t properly fit in in either place no matter how much he tries. He mentions how a lot of 2nd generation Cuban Americans call themselves emigrants and not exiles, he very firmly thinks of himself as exiled and had to go through a much longer and harder process than his American wife to get his visa. He’s constantly reminded that the he doesn’t belong.
This is a really spiritual book, even though it’s about a pantheon that I know nothing about. I enjoyed reading about the distinction between the different goddess and the different things they require from their followers. There’s lots of discussion about the place that these ‘old’ gods have in the modern world and how a lot of people see them as just tourist traps. Reading this made me realise just how much I don’t know about this mythology or any Southern American mythology. (Which is why I’m trying to diversify my reading and what lead me to saying yes to this blog tour.)
For a crime novel this felt like it lacked a lot of the crime aspects. There is murder and a detective but the murder doesn’t happen until halfway through and it’s not necessarily about finding out what happened. When you do find out it’s not because the detective has pieced all the pieces together it’s because the murderer is busy remembering their actions while simultaneously justifying them to themselves.
For me crime books are more about the actions taken in trying to solve the case and seeing if you, as a reader, can piece it together before the characters do. This book is about the people surrounding the crime not the ones trying to solve it. It’s a small distinction but an important one for me. It’s also worth noting that it does wrap up very quickly, it felt like there was a lot left to go but I was already at 90% of the way through.
Why I read it
I was offered a free copy for review but I was interested because I’m trying to diversify my reading and I don’t know much about Cuba apart from the fact it exists and politically it’s not in great shape and hasn’t been for a long time. Also it involves murder and just sounded interesting, even just the title is enough to prick my interest.
This was a really interesting and gripping book. It was less about crime and murder and more about reconciling old with new. I didn’t know what to expect coming into it but I really enjoyed it, it made the city of Havana feel alive in a way that it hasn’t to me before. It’s full of culture and growth and although I saw a couple of things coming I didn’t guess all of it and was surprised multiple times at the different twists and turns.
My only real problem is it wrapped up too quickly at the end, everything was full speed ahead and then it suddenly stopped and was wrapped up with a bow.
Am I glad I read it? Yes
Did I enjoy it? Yes
Would I read again? Probably not, but I’m going to keep an eye out for other books by this author.
Would I recommend? Yeah.
Teresa Dovalpage was born in Havana and now lives in Hobbs, where she is a Spanish and ESL professor at New Mexico Junior College. She has published ten novels and three collections of short stories.
Her first culinary mystery Death Comes in through the Kitchen (Soho Crime, 2018) is set in Havana and features Padrino, a santero-detective. It is loaded with authentic Cuban recipes like arroz con pollo (rice with chicken) and caldosa (a yummy stew). Her second mystery, Queen of Bones, was also published by Soho Crime in November 2019 and includes elements of Santería and, again, food—clearly, the author loves to eat! Both novels are rich in details about life in the island, the kind only an insider can provide. They are the first two books of Soho Crime’s Havana Mystery series. Upcoming are Death of a Telenovela Star (June 2020) and Death under the Perseids.
She also wrote A Girl like Che Guevara (Soho Press, 2004) and Habanera, a Portrait of a Cuban Family (Floricanto Press, 2010).
In her native Spanish she has authored six novels, among them Muerte de un murciano en La Habana (Death of a Murcian in Havana, Anagrama, 2006, a runner-up for the Herralde Award in Spain) and El difunto Fidel (The Late Fidel, Renacimiento, 2011, which won the Rincon de la Victoria Award in Spain in 2009).
Once in a while she delves into theater. Her plays La Hija de La Llorona and Hasta que el mortgage nos separe (published in Teatro Latino, 2019) has been staged by Aguijón Theater in Chicago.
As always thank you to Rachel for organising this blog tour.