Book review

Yes, having an aspiring Santeria priestess for a mother can be a problem — especially if that mother is conflicted about becoming a Santeria priestess and takes out her anxieties on those around her.

In Elizabeth Engelman’s semiautobiographical novel-in-stories, “The Way of the Saints,” the priestess-in-training, a Puerto Rican woman living in 1970s New York City, is as leery of the occult as she is drawn to it. Submission of her will to otherworldly spirits repeatedly leaves her panicky and unsettled. And it makes her elderly mother and young daughter even more uneasy.

That’s a great setup for a tale of multigenerational cultural dislocation and conflict, and Engelman handles it in an unusual way. The book, which won Southeast Missouri State University Press’ Nilsen Literary Prize for a First Novel, is ambitiously scrambled in its chronology, allowing Engelman to mete out crucial turning points in her characters’ lives in an order of her own choosing.

Readers’ occasional disorientation echoes that of Engelman’s characters as they waver over their identities and beliefs. Each piece of the narrative collage immerses you in a specific place and time — 1930s rural Puerto Rico, the 1970s Lower East Side, 1980s City Island (the least Bronx-like part of the Bronx) — without necessarily letting you see how it connects to the whole.

The stakes are established in the opening chapter where, in rural Puerto Rico in 1923, a young boy, Rosendo Cruz, is sold to an “espiritista” who uses him as a “vessel” in her occult practices. The woman’s so-called magic is physically punishing, and isn’t long before he flees this setup.

Flash-forward to the Lower East Side of 1974, where Rosendo’s pregnant daughter Isabel, desperate to keep her baby after a series of miscarriages, seeks help from a self-described “high priest” of Yoruba ritual. He promptly sends her to a “botanica” whose pricey merchandise includes herbs, oils and sacred beads, as well as prayer candles that can help with “Money, Love, Protection, Fast Luck, Jinx Removal, Health, Spell Breaking, Job Finding, Gambling, and Win in Court.” Raised in the Pentecostal church and predisposed to a belief in “unseen powers,” Isabel feels she’s not straying that far with this excursion into Santeria ritual, especially if it can save her pregnancy.

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And it does.

A decade later, Isabel, her husband Jude (a workaholic pharmacist who’s rarely at home) and her daughter Esther live in a pleasant waterfront home on New York’s City Island. As a young girl of the 1980s, Esther inhabits a world of ballet classes, piano lessons, Madonna songs, “Get Smart” reruns and Cabbage Patch dolls. Her mother, meanwhile, remains focused on the esoterica of Santeria.

Engelman, coming at the Cruz family from every angle, evokes just how jumbled and fractured cultural roots, value systems and a sense of home can be. She’s also alert to how entire histories can disappear, especially when it comes to the violently repressed Puerto Rican pro-independence movement of the mid-20th century.

Young Esther is as surprised as Engelman’s readers may be by mentions of the attempted assassination of President Harry S. Truman by Puerto Rican pro-independence activists in 1950 and the retaliatory U.S. bombing of the hill towns where their plot was hatched. The island’s division between pro-independence factions and those who believe “no amount of flag waving is gonna change a damn thing” cuts straight through the Cruz family, too.

Engelman’s writing style is straightforward with occasional fine descriptive touches (“the deep bestial blast of a steamer ship”) and pithy emotional observations (“Walls came easier than vulnerability”). Her depiction of Isabel’s vacillations concerning Santeria practices is sharp as well. Isabel may be tempted by the “world of unbelievable power” that ritual possession promises, but she’s wary of becoming “[s]piritually codependent on forces she did not love and did not trust.”

There’s a vein of comedy in some of the fixes she finds herself in. Presented with a live chicken before yet another make-or-break ceremony on her spiritual journey, her response is: “Please don’t tell me I have to kill it.”

The way the young Esther distortedly reflects her mother’s fluctuating fears and inner conflicts is one of the novel’s strengths. “[F]ear is a presence, a phantom,” an adult Esther later reflects. “It takes possession, and no matter how hard you resist, it isn’t removed by force.”

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On rare occasions, the book’s prose is strained (“Regret frayed at the hem of her thoughts”), and Engelman’s research sometimes shows through too baldly. More seriously, the portrait of Jude (Isabel’s husband and Esther’s father) is almost nonexistent. Engelman clearly wanted to keep her family saga compact, but you do wonder what drew him to the deeply unstable Isabel.

Altogether, though, the world Engelman reveals in the book is memorable and unexpected. So is its wisdom — even when uttered by one of the book’s most problematic characters: “You can’t outrun the stories that make you.” True words, for sure.

NEW FICTION

‘The Way of the Saints’

Elizabeth Engelman, Southeast Missouri State University Press, 208 pp., $18

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