AMERICA IS NOT THE HEART
By Elaine Castillo
Atlantic Books/Paperback/ 406 pages/$29.95/Books Kinokuniya
In 1990, Geronima De Vera - also called Nimang or Hero, for short - arrives in California from the Philippines with nothing left to lose.
As the reader slowly discovers through a series of flashbacks, she had turned her back on her well-connected family to join the communist New People's Army. After she was caught and tortured by government forces, it was only the discovery of her distant links to then president Ferdinand Marcos that saved her life.
But the experience has shattered her. It is left to her eight-year-old cousin Roni and a new friend, Rosalyn, to help Hero put the pieces back together.
Castillo's debut novel dives deep into Filipino-American culture and offers a nuanced portrayal of the Philippines that is refreshing and deeply satisfying.
Snatches of Tagalog, Pangasinan and Ilocano - three major languages used in the Philippines - pepper conversations among characters.
An endless parade of Filipino dishes - bagnet, pinakbet, daing na bangus, sotanghon - flavour the novel's pages.
And more sombrely, Castillo reveals the deep fault lines of class, wealth and skin colour that divide Filipino society.
"So you're a girl and you're poor, the worst combination, but at least you're light-skinned - that'll save you," the novel begins.
And for all that America represents as a fresh start for its main characters, some things never change.
In one disconcerting scene, Hero and Rosalyn find Roni holding a piece of chewed gum given to her by her wealthy Filipino friend's grandmother.
"Why the hell are you holding Charmaine's grandma's gum?" Rosalyn asks.
"She told me to open my hand and then she took it out of her mouth and put it there," Roni replies, nonchalantly.
If this novel has one fault, it is that its pacing is uneven and slows down significantly in the middle. But that does not overshadow the pleasure of reading Castillo's engaging writing.
For a novel set almost entirely in America, the reader ends up learning a lot about the Philippines instead - and this turns out to be a very good thing.
If you like this, read: The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (Riverhead Books, 2008, $17.12, Books Kinokuniya), about a Dominican boy growing up in New Jersey.