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The Mortifications

Cover of The Mortifications

The Mortifications

A Novel
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Derek Palacio's stunning, mythic novel marks the arrival of a fresh voice and a new chapter in the history of 21st century Cuban-American literature.
In 1980, a rural Cuban family is torn apart during the Mariel Boatlift. Uxbal Encarnación—father, husband, political insurgent—refuses to leave behind the revolutionary ideals and lush tomato farms of his sun-soaked homeland. His wife Soledad takes young Isabel and Ulises hostage and flees with them to America, leaving behind Uxbal for the promise of a better life. But instead of settling with fellow Cuban immigrants in Miami's familiar heat, Soledad pushes further north into the stark, wintry landscape of Hartford, Connecticut. There, in the long shadow of their estranged patriarch, now just a distant memory, the exiled mother and her children begin a process of growth and transformation.
Each struggles and flourishes in their own way: Isabel, spiritually hungry and desperate for higher purpose, finds herself tethered to death and the dying in uncanny ways. Ulises is bookish and awkwardly tall, like his father, whose memory haunts and shapes the boy's thoughts and desires. Presiding over them both is Soledad. Once consumed by her love for her husband, she begins a tempestuous new relationship with a Dutch tobacco farmer. But just as the Encarnacións begin to cultivate their strange new way of life, Cuba calls them back. Uxbal is alive, and waiting.
Breathtaking, soulful, and profound, The Mortifications is an intoxicating family saga and a timely, urgent expression of longing for one's true homeland.
Derek Palacio's stunning, mythic novel marks the arrival of a fresh voice and a new chapter in the history of 21st century Cuban-American literature.
In 1980, a rural Cuban family is torn apart during the Mariel Boatlift. Uxbal Encarnación—father, husband, political insurgent—refuses to leave behind the revolutionary ideals and lush tomato farms of his sun-soaked homeland. His wife Soledad takes young Isabel and Ulises hostage and flees with them to America, leaving behind Uxbal for the promise of a better life. But instead of settling with fellow Cuban immigrants in Miami's familiar heat, Soledad pushes further north into the stark, wintry landscape of Hartford, Connecticut. There, in the long shadow of their estranged patriarch, now just a distant memory, the exiled mother and her children begin a process of growth and transformation.
Each struggles and flourishes in their own way: Isabel, spiritually hungry and desperate for higher purpose, finds herself tethered to death and the dying in uncanny ways. Ulises is bookish and awkwardly tall, like his father, whose memory haunts and shapes the boy's thoughts and desires. Presiding over them both is Soledad. Once consumed by her love for her husband, she begins a tempestuous new relationship with a Dutch tobacco farmer. But just as the Encarnacións begin to cultivate their strange new way of life, Cuba calls them back. Uxbal is alive, and waiting.
Breathtaking, soulful, and profound, The Mortifications is an intoxicating family saga and a timely, urgent expression of longing for one's true homeland.
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  • From the book 9781101905692|excerpt

    Palacio / THE MORTIFICATIONS

    the land

    Ulises Encarnación did not believe in fate. This may have been a by-product of the sailor's name his father, Uxbal, had given him and the fact that Ulises detested ocean horizons—­they were impermanent and appeared liked waterfalls over which one could cascade into death. More likely his disbelief was a consequence of how Ulises was taken from Cuba as a young boy by his mother, Soledad, as a member of the now-­infamous 1980 Mariel Boatlift. Uxbal had wanted the family to stay despite their poverty. They did have a sturdy house with a garden, tomatoes when others didn't, but Soledad saw in Ulises a mind for school, and she worried about the state of young, pensive boys in Cuba. Bookworms were considered faggots, and though she did not think her son a homosexual, the state might, and she cringed at the thought of him in prison or, worse, at a rehabilitation camp.

    There was also Ulises's twin sister, Isabel—­or Izzi, as they sometimes called her—­a young girl who sang in church, which could be done anywhere, and who seemed unattached to Buey Arriba, meaning, she might not remember much of Cuba if the family left right then. Soledad preferred to wrench two children out of one culture and into another before the Soviet Union collapsed, which she wrongly predicted would happen in 1985. Uxbal warned them they would not find a home so nice in the States. Kingdoms, he said, are hard to come by. He was so certain of his position that he'd tried holding his daughter ransom, locking Isabel inside the country house with him. Soledad was able to retrieve the girl only by holding Ulises hostage in return. Sewing shears in hand and pressed to her son's jugular, Soledad swore to Uxbal that unless Isabel walked out the front door, suitcase in hand, his bloodline would die.

    It was then, at the age of twelve, that Ulises learned there were no goddesses of the loom, that people could not be, simultaneously, vessels of fate and free will. Destiny was a consequence of irreparable action and, in the case of his childhood relocation, his determined mother's forced evacuation. Outside their country house she'd whispered in his ear not to worry, but there was a blade against his neck, and why would his father have slipped Isabel so quickly out the door if Soledad had not been serious? Aboard an overcrowded lobster boat, hunched against the back of a car thief and wedged between his mother and sister, Ulises immigrated to the United States, rubbing his throat the entire time. He felt close to dying then, not sure he could trust his mother anymore, and he would forever associate that fear with the farthest stretch of water he could see over the hull of a boat looking north of Cuba, where he saw nothing but more water.

    It surprised Ulises that from Miami they took a train north to what the Americans called New England. Soledad's distant cousins lived in Miami, close to Sunny Isles, and he assumed they would make a large, loud Cuban family together. This was Ulises's second train ride, the first the journey from Buey Arriba to Havana. Uxbal had once told his son a story about his own first train ride, from the farmland hills of the Sierra Maestra to the southeastern coast: a little black boy had been seated on the bench in front of Uxbal, and Ulises's father had never seen such hair before. He was five, the boy perhaps the same age, and Uxbal did not hesitate to reach over the bench and touch the tiny curls. He was mesmerized. The black boy shouted, though, and the mothers stood and grabbed for their children. Ulises's grandmother took Uxbal into her arms, from which...
About the Author-
  • Derek Palacio received his MFA in Creative Writing from the Ohio State University. His short story "Sugarcane" appeared in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2013, and his novella How to Shake the Other Man was published by Nouvella Books. He lives and teaches in Ann Arbor, MI, is the co-director, with Claire Vaye Watkins, of the Mojave School, and serves as a faculty member of the Institute of American Indian Arts MFA program.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    July 4, 2016
    At the heart of O’Henry-winner Palacio’s debut novel are the twins Ulises and Isabel Encarnacion. The twins’ mother, Soledad, has fled Cuba with her children during the Mariel boat-lift of 1980, leaving their rebel father, Uxbal, behind in rural Buey Arriba. The three exiles settle in Connecticut, where Soledad takes up with a Dutch horticulturist who grows Cuban tobacco, but she, like her children, cannot escape the past. All three family members are defined by their longing for something lost. Ulises, especially, longs for something indefinable, something he wonders if he ever had in the first place, and which he carries as a burden anyway. A twisted promise Uxbal asks Isabel to keep drives the girl deep into Catholic mysticism. She seeks sacrifice, choosing first one martyrdom and then another, until she goes missing. Ulises is a natural with the Dutchman’s soil, and he excels in Latin and the classics at school. He doesn’t remember much about home, but when Soledad falls victim to cancer and asks him to find Isabel, Ulises returns to Cuba. In fact, all the characters end up where they began—in Cuba—their journeys as mythic as geographic. Perhaps strongest of all in this winning debut are the scenes set in Cuba: these humid and colorful pages sing with empathy. The orphans, rebels, and old women he describes breathe with vital intensity. Agent: PJ Mark, Janklow & Nesbit Associates.

  • Dinaw Mengestu, The New York Times Book Review "Extraordinary. . . . A powerful story. . . . Palacio unspools his characters' lives with the type of omniscient authority befitting an epic. . . . The narrative may operate on a grand scale, but Palacio is just as gifted a miniaturist, able to distill the unbearable ruptures in a family down to a single image."
  • The Boston Globe "Palacio writes vividly, conjuring smells and tastes of life both in the frozen north and the tropical Caribbean, from the sweat of a nun, for whom expensive soap might prompt 'inclinations toward vanity' to the flavor of tobacco and tomatoes."
  • Dallas Morning News "A sweeping, lyrical tale of a family's undoing. . . . Palacio's prose contains moments of beauty and magic that are a pleasure to the ear."
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