The first call of a novel is to tell a story. Not just any story, mind you, but the story only the author of the novel can tell in his or her unique way. What the reader is led to expect is a bit of an escape into another time and world, perhaps a tentative acquaintance with the characters who populate the text.
When I first began to read the excerpt of “Magdalena,” which we published in the Philippines Graphic a few years back, I found myself learning the book’s characters and feeling for them on a level I rarely feel. I found myself enamored of them in a way one only truly feels for actual humans—usually one’s family.
Imagine my joy at receiving a copy of the first Philippine release of this novel. As eager as I was, when I settled down to read it, I found my emotions were overloaded by what Manguerra Brainard wrote.
The story of Magdalena’s life is a rich one, full of emotional intensity told with the brilliant clarity of Manguerra Brainard’s pen. It made me cry and it made me sigh. It reminded me so much of my mother’s family that I had to put it down mid-story.
As much as I loved the work, I found myself unable to continue. For a work of fiction, “Magdalena” had quickly become as personal to me as my own blood and vital organs are personal to me.
Such intensity and clarity as the novel holds, it is like the sun one cannot look directly into without going blind.
“I’d grown up knowing my mother died at the delivery table, and it wasn’t until I was in school when I realized that the other children’s mothers hadn’t died during childbirth,” Juana, Magdalena’s daughter, speaks in the prologue with simplicity that belies just how big the secrets of her family are, and how convoluted they became over the course of her mother’s life.
“A secret has tremendous power,” Juana says. I must agree. As my reading uncovered some of those secrets, I found myself feeling a whole range of emotions I was unprepared for—my usual thing is to retreat from emotion, and reading this book made me have to face my own secret: I could actually feel strongly enough and intensely enough to be uncomfortable with the feelings.
So the book sat like a strong yearning on one of my high shelves and I promised myself I would revisit it when my schedule would permit me to weep over the women of “Magdalena” and their fate. When I did find myself back in the pages of Magdalena, I found so much reward amid the punishments visited upon its characters. I found courage there, silently overwhelming courage. I found love there, overflowing and healing love. I even found forgiveness in those pages, and now I have a how-to guide.
I found that fortitude, re-read the parts I’d already read and continued on to the bitter end—and Manguerra Brainard knows her bitter endings very well indeed. But the epilogue eases the bitterness with the assurance of life, glorious life, affirming all the pain in the text.
Like my mother’s family, Magdalena’s family was a mix of Spanish and Chinese. Obviously, the strong emotions and the showing of them are not unique to my maternal line as I’d like to think. This book, written so far away from the author’s native shores (and mine) show me that the fiction is woven of very real threads, that it tells of lives that could very well have been lived in my mother’s ancestral home in the Visayas. It hit me right at home, dead on the bullseye.
Rarely have I read such exquisite command of storytelling as I see in the pages of this novel. Here she uses the backdrop of a Japanese-occupied Philippines to maximum effect, devastating the reader’s emotions without giving any quarter nor taking any prisoners. You die inside and come to life again when the feelings of hope hit you—and they will.
March is Women’s Month, and the strength of Manguerra Brainard’s women is a fitting celebration of that. Read “Magdalena” to see how the strength and beauty of these women spanned three generations, defeating even death.
No, not even death can save you from the intense and iridescent beauty of Manguerra Brainard’s mastery of her craft. Don’t miss reading this book, even if you need to pause between chapters. It is worth the emotional whiplash, I promise. G