Book Review: Dominicana

Angie Cruz
John Murray Publishers

This novel is based on the experiences of Angie Cruz’s mother when she immigrated to New York from the Dominican Republic as a young girl in the nineteen sixties. The fictionalised protagonist Ana Canción is only fifteen when, prompted by her ambitious mother who considered her daughter’s beautiful green eyes a ‘a winning lottery ticket’, she marries a man Juan Ruiz, twice her age. She does not love this man but he offers a way out of the poverty and political turmoil of the Dominican Republic for her family by bringing his young bride to New York with the promise of a better life and of facilitating the arrival of all her family there later. Juan turns out to be an abusive and unfaithful husband who was often ‘too drunk to know the difference between a dress and a potato sack’, and sometimes calls out the name Caridad, his other woman, when he is in that state. Ana is forced to live almost like a prisoner on a sixth-floor apartment in Washington Heights. She has no autonomy. Juan controls the key to the apartment, gives her little money and, as she has no English, she is afraid to go out. Longing for freedom, she is at the mercy of her husband but is prepared to sacrifice her own happiness for the sake of her family.
When Juan temporarily returns to the worsening situation in the Dominican Republic to secure his family’s assets, he leaves his promiscuous younger brother César to take care of Ana. She forms an attachment to César who affords her glimpses of freedom as he takes her on outings to Coney Island, the World Fair and to the Audubon dancehall. She begins to take English lessons in a church with a nun and we learn that Ana’s journey was not only geographical but also one of self-discovery as she unearths in herself inner resources of selflessness and loyalty in combat with her own longing for fulfilment. She at one point is about to escape on a bus from New York and her marriage when César persuades her to return. And although she puts her family first, she emerges from this book not as a victim but as a survivor and proves herself to be strong, bearing a nine-pound baby, and resilient as she had ‘learned a lot from growing up with animals’.
She begins to earn money by selling on the streets fried pastelitos, a delicacy of ground meat and raisins, a recipe learned from her native country. She hides the money in her ceramic doll Dominicana which she had bought at Santo Domingo airport. But she feels in New York with its cold and indifferent streets ‘ant small among all the skyscrapers’, and she grippingly records her terror at being lost in a place that doesn’t love her: ‘The ground beneath me spins. The faces of strangers enlarge.’ However, she is prepared to adapt. Her family eventually arrive and she goes to buy chocolate for them in a Puerto Rican shop. Alex the owner, eyeing her up says, ‘New York looks good on you. You planning to stick around?’ Glancing back to see her family eagerly awaiting her she replies, ‘Yes, I am.’
This book is an insightful and vibrant examination of what it means to be an immigrant. The narrative is presented in very short present-tense chapters which can have a jarring effect on a reader, but equally can have the effect of forcing one to sit up and take notice that something real is happening here, like César finding the heater coughing as if ‘it had fur stuck down its throat’.
Published in the Irish Examiner, 28/11/2020.


Author: James Lawless

Irish novelist, poet and short story writer.

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