Urrea’s book, rich in detail and images, has much to say about the immigrant experience; about how language becomes both a barrier and a bond; and how a family defines home. But it’s especially moving as an end-of-life portrait.

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Book review

“The House of Broken Angels”

by Luis Alberto Urrea

Little, Brown; $27, 326 pp.

You know that feeling of when you’re out of town in some strange, fascinating, bustling city, and you don’t know quite where to look, pleasantly overpowered by the barrage of new sights, sounds, smells? That’s what it feels like to read Luis Alberto Urrea’s “The House of Broken Angels,” a sprawling yet intimate tale of the de la Cruzes, a multigenerational Mexican-American family. It’s the sort of book you might read, as I did, in one long, breathless push, like diving into a pool and being loathe to surface.

Taking place over two days in San Diego (though flashbacks float us to Tijuana, La Paz and beyond), the novel has two key characters: Big Angel, who is facing what he knows will be his final birthday party (his 70th; he has terminal cancer) on what turns out to be the day after his mother’s funeral, and his much-younger half brother, Little Angel, an English teacher who years ago had “gone off to Seattle and lived in the rain.” A family footnote — he’s the son of “an American woman who had been branded in the family legends as the gringa hussy who had taken away their Great Father” — he’s back for a wary reunion, never quite sure of his place.

Through them, we meet countless other de la Cruzes, and I wished Urrea (who’ll speak at Seattle Public Library March 28) had included a family tree; it wasn’t always easy to keep track of how each character fits in. But in some ways the confusion feels right; the book, with two crowded central events, feels gloriously populated. The reader becomes a guest at the funeral and the birthday party, mingling and meeting and greeting; slowly piecing together the story of a family, with its joys and its tragedies.

Urrea, whose many previous works include the nonfiction Pulitzer Prize finalist “The Devil’s Highway: A True Story” and the Pacific Rim Kiriyama Prize-winning historical novel “The Hummingbird’s Daughter,” shares a background with Little Angel: The Tijuana-born son of a Mexican father and an American mother, he’s an English professor (though in Chicago, not Seattle). But he explains, in a charming author’s note beginning “Dear Literary Companion,” that the de la Cruz family is not his own, though he borrowed scenes and anecdotes from real life and wove them into his fiction’s tapestry. (His grandmother’s real-life brief foray into parrot smuggling contributed one of the book’s funniest moments.)

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Urrea’s book, rich in detail and images, has much to say about the immigrant experience; about how language becomes both a barrier and a bond; and how a family defines home. But it’s especially moving as an end-of-life portrait, as Big Angel tries to take in every detail of days that are slipping away. Every moment in his life, as he perches on its edge, seems to come rushing back to him in waves; he remembers long-ago emotions, voices, even smells. Memories of his father, for example, return to him “redolent of cigarette smoke and leather, the wool of his tunic, and the bay rum and shaving soap blowing back from his cheeks”; the sea, as he recalls it, smells of “salt and seaweed and shrimp and distance.”

Trying to thank his daughter for a moving birthday surprise, Big Angel struggles for the right phrases but hits on a gentle truth; one of the book’s many gifts. “He wanted to leave her with a blessing, with beautiful words to sum up a life, but there were no words sufficient to this day. But still, he tried. ‘All we do, mija,’ he said, ‘is love. Love is the answer. Nothing stops it. Not borders. Not death.’”

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Luis Alberto Urrea will appear at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 28, at Seattle Public Library’s Central Library; free, 206-386-4636 or spl.org.