Reviewed by Rigoberto González
National Book Critics Circle
The Region of Lost Names by debut novelist Fred Arroyo tells the touching tale of Ernest and Magdalene, star-crossed lovers separated by conflicts that predate their families' migration from Puerto Rico.
College-educated and building careers in the Midwest, the two discover that they are not immune to repeating their parents' mistakes -- though, unlike their elders, they hope to earn forgiveness for the errors of their ways.
Ernest grows up in an agricultural town in Michigan, where his manhood is shaped by the burdens of hard labor and by his cruel co-workers, including Changó, his father, and his father's best friend, Boogaloo. When he's old enough, Ernest parts ways with his community to pursue an education. He readily admits that "there would be consequences for living my life around men like Boogaloo: They are a deep source of loneliness, despair, and work."
He becomes so focused on his future and on severing ties with his past that he loses sight of the woman who loves him, Magdalene. When she becomes pregnant with his child, she hides from him because "Ernest was facing his life, catching important things that were guiding him in profound ways, helping him to become."
But without family to ground him, Ernest wanders without clarity, "hoping for some compass in his life, some cloud or island of grace."
Now a single mother, Magdalene sets off on her own self-exile, returning to Puerto Rico and reconnecting with Ernest's estranged parents, the only place she knows Ernest will not follow. "Even though a life without sadness is incomplete," she reasons, "sadness must be washed away." In turn, Ernest, in a desperate attempt to reconcile with Magdalene, seeks the help of Magdalene's alienated mother, an embittered woman who confronts Ernest with the pattern of behavior that has plagued the women of her family: "It has always been the same -- you men run away, you do what you want." Determined to break the cycle, Ernest must first untangle the incestuous web of betrayals and grudges that connect his family to Magdalene's.
Told in alternating points of view, The Region of Lost Names goes beyond contrasting what he said with what she said to construct an intertwined narrative of two people who co-exist only in the realm of memory and desire. Both Ernest and Magdalene must navigate "through a sea of time," forgiving themselves and their families before they can reach (and forgive) each other.
Arroyo has written a unique love story, which tackles larger issues such as the plight of the immigrant, the sacrifices of social mobility, and the disorientation of gender expectations. But the engine that pushes this moving story forward is the heart -- Ernesto's and Magdalene's, the two young heroes who must contend with the disenchantments of entire generations of their people, and who have the strength to surpass them.
Rigoberto González is an award-winning writer living in New York City. His Web site is www.rigobertogonzalez.com, and he may be reached at Rigoberto70@aol.com.
Books mentioned in this post