America is Not the Heart

Atlantic £14.99

Elaine Castillo

Review by Hugh MacDonald

ALL first novels are marked by energy. Some are distorted by it, bent out of shape by a passion that is immature and incapable of being properly harnessed. Others such as America is Not the Heart unleash a force that is sometimes barely rational, oft times just, and only just, governable and regularly breath-taking.

Elaine Castillo has thrown so much into her debut novel that there are challenges for both critic and reader. The dustjacket remarks that it concerns food, music, sex and belonging. Castillo has thrown in the kitchen sink, dutifully filled with Filipino dishes for this is a novel that does not blink in the face of listing the foods and the ingredients of the homeland of the main characters.

So where to begin? Castillo, it seems, faced this question too. The prologue is a third person narrative of what would seem to be the main character of the book: a child born in poverty in the Philippines who escapes to the USA to discover that 16-hour days as an immigrant nurse barely manage to support the burdens of her past, most notably a husband, who has fallen from economic grace, and an extended family who would best be described as monthly standing orders.

But, suddenly and awkwardly, a new heroine is introduced, helpfully named Hero. Phrases of various languages native to the Philippines are employed and the narrative flow, seemingly concerned with mundane matters, threatens to become hopelessly bogged down.

Diversions into music, culture, dialects, and, of course, food curiously shrug off the danger of torpor and Hero, gently but resolutely, takes over.

Set in the Philippines and Bay Area of the United States over the 1980s and 1990s, Castillo references the killing fields of a country brutally colonised then left to the depredations of local warlords. It also makes pertinent, contemporary points about how immigration built and sustained the world’s greatest power.

But the most powerful force in this novel of energy is the challenging of cliché. The most universal theme of this genre is demolished. The notion that we have only one life is both evidently true and demonstrably wrong. It is why most human beings categorise existence with words such as before and after.

Hero has three lives. She was the daughter of an upper-class family, cosseted by privilege and comforted by expectation. She was then a revolutionary fighting the Filipino establishment. She becomes a refugee, fleeing in exile to the USA where her role in family and in society is humble, even servile. But she rises yet again.

Castillo is almost recklessly brave in her approach. The critic in me cavils at the lack of focus in the novel, the abandonment of certain characters and the sheer weight of so many ideas. The reader in me wonders at its ambition.

America Is Not The Heart grabs both reader and critic by the lapels. Castillo has made an introduction that cannot be ignored.