Pierced by the Sun by Laura Esquivel, translated by Jordi Castells (2015)
Originally A Lupita le gustaba planchar (2014)
After four years of undergraduate study (preceded by four years of undergraduate goofing off), I finally graduated with my English degree in 1995. I’d avoided English as a major for a long time, because even though it had always been my best subject, I’d worried that formal study would damage my lifelong love of reading. It didn’t do that, but for those last two years, it definitely turned reading into a life-sucking, non-paying job, so I spent the first couple of post-graduation months happily avoiding books.
When it was finally time to throw myself back into the pages, the first two novels I attacked were Caleb Carr’s The Alienist and Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, both of them worthy of the honor. I enjoyed them both a great deal, but the wistful, sensual magic of the Esquivel novel was like a gentle, warm reminder of why I loved reading and why I’d finally settled on English as my major. It will always have a special place in my heart because of when it came along in my life and how it welcomed me into the resumption of my bookworm ways.
That was twenty-one years ago, and I hadn’t read another Esquivel novel since, until I was presented with the opportunity to read her latest, Pierced by the Sun, a month before its release. I knew it was time to reacquaint myself.
Lupita is a police officer in a city in Mexico. When a local official is murdered while she directs traffic nearby, she becomes wrapped up in the investigation. The turmoil weakens her enough to let in the demons she’s tenuously kept at bay for some time. She has been the victim of abuse, at the hands of more than one man, and she has in turn abused others around her. She relapses into self-destructive behavior while continuing to seek peace in the menial mundanities of her everyday life while piecing together the circumstances surrounding the murder.
[box type=”shadow”]Boy, did she like it! She liked to drink until she was completely lost. What she liked the most about drinking was not being present, that feeling of self-evasion, of disconnection, of liberation, of escape. Alcohol offered her an excellent alternative to being herself without actually dying.[/box]
Titles of chapters all begin with “Lupita Loved,” as in “Lupita Loved to Iron,” “Lupita Loved Booze,” and “Lupita Loved to Dance,” and the titles are quick images of this conflicted woman tortured by her past, wrestling with her present, and still finding love and beauty in bringing life up from the soil, or gazing at the stars as they tell their stories from the heavens. Esquivel has something to say about modern Mexico, and while it’s a bleak picture, it’s made up of millions of beautiful things, some of which point to some kind of hope for something better.
Esquivel’s prose is mostly spare, much as it is in Like Water for Chocolate. Sentences are short and simple, but they find elegance in the details they highlight, and in the way they follow each other, a musical style that’s pleasing and somehow exotic, as when she sees a murder suspect in the dance hall on Friday night:
Lupita had three options: go after the man and arrest him, go back to Captain Martinez and tell him about it so he could handle the arrest, or go find some cocaine and enjoy the rest of the night. She chose the last one.
Pierced by the Sun is a short novel that takes its time, both qualities I appreciate in a good story, but the writer stops one chapter short of a satisfying read. Lupita is given a chance to forgive herself, and the narrative voice expands, rather abruptly, into a larger statement about Mexico, but then it leaves us there when one last image of Lupita, perhaps ironing shirts, or maybe making breakfast for a lover, would have brought the arc back to earth. If the novel is meant only to be a treatise on Mexico’s straying from its wonderful history, I suppose it’s fine as it is, but then it’s a waste of a good story. If it’s also meant to give us this character and this story in this time and this place, it owes us a better conclusion, and this is the novel’s only real shortcoming.
Three of five stars: I like it.