Memories, family, nationalities, love, violence. The blurring and blending of these connections and emotions drives the rhythm of Achy Obejas’s Memory Mambo.
The novel’s narrator is Juani, a Cuban-American lesbian with a complicated and highly involved family. The story picks up just after Juani has had a violent altercation with her girlfriend, and through flashbacks, tells of the events leading up to it.
Juani’s story is inextricably intertwined with those of her siblings and multiple “cousins” (other American-born Cuban expatriates), and consequently they become distinct and important characters of their own: Patricia, well-educated and married to an American Jew. Pauli, Juani’s sister who won’t reveal the name of her daughter’s father. And Caridad, married to Jimmy, an abusive man who has an uncomfortable and competitive relationship with Juani.
Then there is Gina, a Puerto Rican activist who challenges Juani at every turn and quickly becomes the object of her desire.
Memory Mambo is a well-written novel, and Obejas excels at enveloping the reader in the character’s daily life. The supporting characters are also fleshed-out and realistically complex, and while the Cuban-American reader is bound to get even more out of the novel, Memory Mambo manages to appeal to the non-Cuban reader as well without minimizing (or sensationalizing) the influence of Juani’s ethnicity on her approach to life.
Obejas also deserves credit for exploring the issue of domestic violence between women, since this is a subject which is often ignored in fiction.
The novel would benefit from a little more clarity and context around some of the plot lines, however. Juani’s relationship with her brother-in-law Jimmy, for example, remains puzzling since her simultaneous attraction to and repulsion from him is never explained in a very coherent way (although perhaps this kind of messy interpersonal relationship is precisely what the author is trying to highlight.)
I also found the myriad characters and plot lines somewhat disorienting at times. And although the liberal use of Spanish phrases adds credibility to the story and makes for a richer reading experience, it does make the non-Spanish-speaker work a little harder to catch the same drift.
I don’t generally enjoy stories with such violent undertones, but this novel requires it to convey the level of day-to-day violence that this family endures, even comes to expect.
This is the most chilling lesson from Obejas’s novel: how easy it is to become accustomed to low-grade levels of violence, so that you almost don’t even notice it anymore.
But I don’t want to over-emphasize the dark side of this story; Mambo has many warm and funny moments. It’s this juxtaposition of the light with the dark, in fact, that makes this novel stay with you long after you’ve read it.