Where There Was Fire by John Manuel Arias
Published by Flatiron Books
Publication date: August 29, 2023
Genres: Book Clubs, Debut, Fiction, Cultural, Historical, Literary
The verdant, extravagant beauty of Costa Rica hosts the three-generation family saga found in Where There Was Fire by John Manuel Arias. The Valaverdes are a united family in 1968 until the night a fight and a fire leave their lives in ashes. Now, the remaining family members, Teresa and her daughter Lyra, reluctantly reunite almost 30 years later, both looking for answers before it’s too late.
Lyra is a fertility counselor running her practice while raising her 10-year-old son Gabriel. She hasn’t spoken to her mother in over a decade. The night the American Fruit Company, a banana exporting conglomerate, burned down, Teresa’s mother died and her husband disappeared. In her grief she left her two young daughters, Lyra and Carmen, with their three aunts and went to America. It was six years before she returned and even then, her transgressions continued until the event that caused Lyra to break off all contact with her.
There is so much drama in Where There Was Fire that the story could have become unwieldy, but in Arias’ hands it unfolds seamlessly between the world of deeply troubled family histories and the part played in those families by careless, greedy corporations. The very real facts of the exploitation of Costa Rican banana workers are brought to light, but magnified through the lens of one family. It brings intimacy and resonance to the pain compounded through the generations, from Teresa’s mother on down through her daughter and the decisions she’s led to by resentment and anger. That this pain stem from actions based on lies further obscures the truth both Teresa and Lyra need to find their way to forgiveness.
Costa Rica is a place I’ve longed to visit and Arias’ prose is a gorgeous introduction to the country. His writing is as decadent as the landscape and lives being described. I was reminded of Gabriel Garcia Márquez, another writer of cinematic prose. This is not spare contemporary writing, but the kind that dances and flashes on the page with turns of phrase that delight the mind. And yet, neither obscures the individual with their writing. Where There Was Fire is a exuberant expression of the best and worst of human emotions and the redemption that can come from both.
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