Review: The Passion According to Carmela – Marcos Aguinis

Trinidad, Cuba

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In the growing tensions of 1950s Cuba, Carmela Vasconcelos leaves behind a comfortable middle-class existence to join her brother, Lucas, as a rebel in the relatively-unknown Fidel Castro’s forces. Marcos Aguinis’ The Passion According to Carmela (AmazonCrossing, translated from Spanish by Carolina de Robertis) tracks her path through the coming Revolution, and her romantic involvement with fellow-revolutionary, Ignacio Deheza, who has travelled from Argentina to join the cause. As these twin passions burn bright, Carmela finds herself that bears little resemblance to the one she has left behind.
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As in Aguinis’ previous novel, Against the Inquisition, the historical detail of the time period is a significant strength, leaving the reader with a more personal way of thinking about figures like Fulgencio Batista, Fidel and Raoul Castro, and guerrilla poster-boy, Che Guevara. The story focuses heavily on their movements during the Revolution; however, at times this appears to place the actual main characters of the book into the periphery. Carmela and Ignacio hover within the sphere of the revolutionary leaders, in the midst of, but not central to, the action. Unfortunately, the reader is left with a sense that this is more a plot device to allow further discussion of Cuba’s history than something that furthers the development of Carmela and Ignacio’s stories.
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The novel was inspired by the experiences of Hilda Molina, a Cuban neurosurgeon who was initially a supporter of Castro’s regime, but later spoke out against the government and was prevented from travelling to Argentina to reunite with family members there. Like Hilda, the reader sees Carmela evolve over the course of the novel, from a passionate, if naïve, idealist, into a more wary and battle-hardened version of herself, having both witnessed and survived a number of threats to life and safety. Often, however, the characterisation of Carmela appears two-dimensional, and it is therefore difficult to fully engage, or believe, in her motivations and world view. As the reader is not deeply immersed in Carmela’s world, it is not always evident why she would act or make decisions in certain ways.
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The limitations in Carmela’s character development extend also to her relationship with Ignacio. By alternating between first- and third-person narration, Aguinis attempts to provide both an omniscient examination of the novel’s events, and a level of introspection into individual characters’ perspectives. The voices of the characters are not clearly differentiated, however, so it can be difficult to not only determine which character is speaking initially, but also to develop a sense of the relationship between them. Instead of seeing a passionate and colourful engagement between Carmela and Ignacio, as the book’s title might suggest, the language creates distance that is as if viewing the couple through a lens of black and white.
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For fans of historical fiction, or those with an interest in learning about the Cuban Revolution, The Passion According to Carmela will be an interesting read. Character development is not the book’s strength, however, so if you’re looking for a romance read or character study to engross you, maybe give this one a miss.

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Thanks to AmazonCrossing for providing a copy of The Passion According to Carmela for review. It is now publicly available for purchase.

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