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Coconuts for the Saints
Debra Spark

Coconuts for the Saints
Debra Spark
Faber & Faber
London 1995

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Widower Sandrofo Codero Lucero arrives in Puerto Rico with his triplet daughters. His intention is to re-open the bakery left to him by his wife. And so the staple ingredients of the South American magical realist novel are displayed. He is an enigmatic insomniac; the three girls – Tata, Beatriz and Melone – will in future remember nothing of their lives in America. One is mute, from choice. The town is as parched and whitewashed as one could wish, the minor characters all eccentrics with inner longings that will inevitably shape the course of the narrative. Catholicism, witchcraft, the family’s Judaism… We hear all their stories, prompted by the curiosity of Sandrofo’s eventual fiancée, Maria Elena – all, that is, except Sandrofo’s own. The unravelling of their lives towards the final chapter, where we learn what really lies behind our enigmatic baker, is beautifully written.

Debra Spark is clearly a first-rate writer. The universe she creates is immediately engaging and convincing, the characters exist fully on the page. The narrative tone is sustained through the different strands of the novel. The only problem I had with this, is that this is not Spark’s universe. Spark is a Bostonian, and a product of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her Puerto Rico is one of the mind, rather than experience. If her last set task at Iowa had been to write a novel à la the South American masters, then she has exceeded her brief admirably. But whether it is authentic is another matter. Should this be an issue? Regionalism is a moving feast; Spark has as much right to create her own Puerto Rico as Marquez has to create his own Boston, but still this question of authenticity nags. When the narrative finally switches back to North America, there is an altogether tougher, more gripping force to her writing.

Much as I enjoyed this, and recommend it to anyone who wants to see totally professional and engaging fiction from new writers, I will put my order in for her next book in the hope that she engages her own culture. I think that would prove her to be a real force in American literature for the future.

Reviewed by Sara Rance


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