From birth, Ana Canción has been told that her green eyes are “a winning lottery ticket”. She is a country girl with modest horizons but her mother – determined and frequently cruel – has a plan to get the family out of the Dominican Republic to the promised land of America. So it is that Ana, all of 15 years old, is married off to 32-year-old Juan Ruiz, who will take her to New York with him.
They arrive on New Year’s Day 1965 – bad luck, Ana thinks, “because it’s like entering a room without going through a door”. She has travelled on a fake passport that claims she is 19, but it isn’t just four years of her life that she has lost.
The idea was that Ana, once married, would demand money, an education, papers enabling her parents and siblings to join her. Juan, with his polished shoes and “soft, pillowy hands and cheeks”, turns out to be a tight-fisted brute, and Ana finds herself trapped in a squalid sixth-floor apartment in Washington Heights, unable to speak a word of English. “Bully me, and I transform into an ant,” she confides.
It’s a grim portrait of what it means to be doubly disenfranchised as a female illegal immigrant in an oppressively patriarchal community, but Angie Cruz gives her heroine a glimpse of a different life when Juan has to travel home for two months, leaving his spirited younger brother, César, to look out for her. Together, they eat hotdogs at Coney Island and dance at the Audubon Ballroom. César also helps her earn money of her own, which she stashes in a ceramic doll bought in Santo Domingo airport. “My sweet, hollow Dominicana will keep all my secrets,” she pledges. It helps that the doll, with heavy symbolism, has neither eyes nor mouth.
In the acknowledgments of this absorbing if imperfect exploration of the transactional bargains that women are forced to strike is a plea for film and photographic footage of New York’s Dominican community from the 1950s to the 1980s. The kind of colour that such an archive might yield is precisely what’s missing from the narrative. While its Dominican sections evoke skin that tastes of the ocean, a place where the ground is strewn with ripe apricots and radios fill the air with song, in the main it could be set almost any time, any place. There are moments, too, when the dialogue seems jarringly anachronistic. “You have rights,” Ana’s older sister tells her with marriage looming, “you’re the boss of you.”
This, Cruz’s third novel, is on the longlist for this year’s Women’s prize for fiction. She was inspired to write it by her mother’s experience, but when told about the project, the older woman was apparently unconvinced: “Who would be interested in a story about a woman like me? It’s so typical.” Typical but rarely represented among mainstream narratives, Cruz counters, echoing a heated scene in which Ana scours the newspaper for word on the political violence that has overwhelmed her native country, finding only a report about a Dominican playboy. “Nobody cares about us,” she rails to César. His response? To push pen and paper her way.
• Dominicana by Angie Cruz is published by John Murray (£16.99). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15
Source: The Guardian