Author: Béa Gonzalez, 2005.
Genre: Historical Fiction. Magical Realism (?)
Other Details: Paperback. 306 pages.
Gonzalez structures her novel as an opera in terms of prelude, three acts and list of dramatis personae. It is the favourite story told by a grandmother to her grandchildren "full of forbidden love, unbearable grief, a country lost and another one found and moments of true transcendence."
Act I is set in Seville, Spain in the late 19th century and recounts the early years of Diego Clemente. His mother was a governess, who became pregnant by the head of the household and turned out. A chance meeting with Emilio, a bookish young man whose mother desires him to enter the priesthood, leads to a marriage of convenience. Emilio raises Diego as his own and instils in him a love of books, language and maps. Diego in particular is strongly drawn to John James Audubon’s Birds of America. He longs to travel to the New World to see these amazing creatures for himself. His dreams come true after the death of his parents when his skill for drawing birds gains him a recommendation for a position with Edward Nelson, a naturalist mapping the birds of the Yucatán..
Act II & III are set in Mexico in 1909 with the Mexican Revolution brewing in the background. Diego's work with Nelson brings him into contact with Sofia Duarte, the daughter of small plantation owner who has fallen on hard times. Her father also owns a bookshop where Sofia assists him when she can. He is a close friend of Edward Nelson and shares his love of nature and birds. Sofia's mother and aunts are concerned with her independent thinking and are seeking to make a proper match for her, ideally with the son of the local henequen magnate to whom her father is in debt. Sofia finds herself initially antagonistic to Diego as she longs to be able to travel and work alongside Nelson. However, as might be expected this soon turns to a hesitant, unspoken love between the couple that sets the scene for the forbidden love promised by the storyteller.
This is a lyrical and elegantly told story that aside from its central poignant love story skilfully interweaves aspects of Mexican history and the social conditions that led to the Revolution of 1910. I also have a love of birds and the many rich and detailed descriptions of these were very inspiring. I would have loved the novel to have been illustrated. Although the name of the grandmother is not given, her possession a photograph of Diego and the beautiful illustrated map that he created and carried with him from Seville to Mexico, identifies her as Sofia. Given that the story ends as the Mexican revolution begins, I was left wanting more of Sofia's story.
My only minor quibble was why the publisher's elected to identify the novel as a work of Magical Realism as aside from its Mexican setting, it just didn't have that ambiance. Perhaps they felt the operatic/story-telling structure made it so? Still it was a beautifully written story that totally captivated me from start to finish.
Béa Gonzalez's essay on the writing of 'The Mapmaker's Opera'.