Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Book Review: Normal Miguel by Erik Orrantia

Reviewed by Victor J. Banis
Bristlecone Pine Press, 2010

These days, so much glbt fiction is written in bold letters: cowboys and space travelers, murder mysteries and of course lots of high-octane sex, that it is a special treat and indeed refreshing to read something from the other end of the spectrum. Erik Orrantia’s enchanting novel, NORMAL MIGUEL, is what we used to call “slice of life,” in this case, especially intriguing because it describes a life with which few of us are likely to be familiar.

When he graduates from Normal School (what in the States we mostly call “teachers’ colleges”) young Miguel Hern├índez escapes from his unhappy gay life in the near-slums of Mexico City by accepting an internship for a year at the Internado, a live-in school in a distant mountain village, but his long and arduous bus trip to Comaltic├ín turns out to be a journey of discovery.

The author shows us the life in the small rural village with such perfectly rendered detail that the unique setting becomes familiar to the reader and one feels that he has been there not only in the spirit but in the flesh as well. In the same way, he introduces us to a large cast of characters, bringing each of them indelibly to life, often with no more than a word or two, and sometimes with well constructed side stories that enhance rather than distract from his main narrative. And though the reader may be utterly unfamiliar with life in rural Mexico, it is unlikely that any gay reader won’t identify with Miguel in his struggle to come to terms with himself as a homosexual.

The events that happen are mostly low-key, though important to the characters and increasingly, as we find ourselves absorbed in the life of the village, to the reader as well. Lonely, Miguel allows himself to be used sexually by the local baker, before rebelling and regaining his pride. He meets the owner of the local candy store, Ruben, and falls gradually in love, a love that, as the story progresses, will be tested in ways that I can’t discuss without spoiling things.

Mostly the story centers on Miguel’s interactions with his students, who come to respect and ultimately to love him, while he in turns realizes that he has as much to learn from them as he has to teach them. What a diverse and lovable bunch of imps they are, too.

Heart breaking poverty, violent summer storms, some homophobia, the working out of relations between the two young men and their mothers, a memorable Christmas, an amusing but sweet wedding, the gentle awakening of love—quiet but intense dramas—keep the pages turning. One finishes the book with a sense of sadness that it can’t go on forever—as life in the mountain village will—and at the same time a sense of satisfaction, of completion. This is, in fact, a very satisfying read.

Yes, of course, there are some flaws. The use, especially early on, of a passive voice saps the opening chapters of some of their vitality, and a sterner editorial eye would have caught the too-frequent repetition of the same words and phrases in a single paragraph – “as,” for instance, pops up sometimes in sentence after sentence. And the author resorts to the clumsy device of telegraphing things—sort of, “in good time, dear reader, he will learn…” which destroys the illusion for the reader of living the events and reminds him that it is only a story being told to him.

None of this, however, really spoils the pleasure of reading this truly charming book, and I find myself already looking forward to the next one. A fine addition to our genre, and highly recommended to those who like a beautiful story, beautifully told.

Read more about his author and book here.

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