Let the stories be heard

Bob Moyer reviews the latest —  and could it be the last? — novel by Julia Alvarez, a distinguished author who, though born in New York, spent much of her childhood in the Dominican Republic.

THE CEMETERY OF UNTOLD STORIES. By Julia Alvarez. Algonquin Books. 227 pages. $28.

With a blend of family drama, magical realism, a little history and a lot of good writing, Julia Alvarez beguiles us with the tale of Alma, an end-of-career writer of Dominican descent much like herself. This novel is a story of “…What happens when a writer leaves the gated community of her established craft and instead goes feral.” As successful as she has been, Alma has a sizable collection of unfinished stories, and she worries about what will happen to the characters therein. When she inherits a piece of property in a rundown neighborhood in the Dominican Republic, she makes an unusual decision.

She will bury them.

THE CEMETERY OF UNTOLD STORIES features plots with a sculpture commemorating each unfinished story. Visitors are admitted only if they tell one of their stories at the gate. Filomena, an illiterate domestic who lives in the neighborhood, becomes fascinated with the cemetery, and visits regularly, gaining entrance with hers and others’ stories. Soon, Alma hires Filomena to be caretaker.

At that point, the narrative voice leaves Alma, and is taken over by Filomena’s story, as well as two voices who refuse to stay buriedManuel Cruz, Alma’s “papi,” and Bienvenida, the tragic second wife of Rafael Trujillo, the brutal dictator who ruled the Republic for many years. Filomena can hear their plaintive tales, and faithfully listens to them. Their stories unfold along with her family saga, her sister and nephew having emigrated to Nueva York years ago. Manuel escaped to New York to avoid persecution for resistance to Trujillo’s regime. He reveals to Filomena what he kept silent about so many years to his family, a taciturn man unknown to them. Bienvenida found herself erased from history by her successor, and denied by her husband. With these characters, Alvarez does what Alma could not — she finishes their stories. In doing so, she also gives voice to a wide swath of experience rarely heard, that of those past and present in the Dominican Republic.

Alvarez brings her best to what she hints might be her last book. Eloquent at times, a master of blending colloquialisms and Spanish phrases seamlessly into the narrative, she keeps us engaged as she finishes these stories with a satisfying denouement. If this is indeed her last book, it is a worthy addition to her body of work.

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