THE FARAWAY WORLD, by Patricia Engel
“Do you know that yesterday a man stopped me on the street because he thought I was American?” says Florencia, a character in Patricia Engel’s wistful, understated second collection of stories. “He said I had the same name as of one of Italy’s greatest cities. He said it was one of the most beautiful places in all of Europe, full of history and majesty. He said it suited me.”
That Florencia will never visit Italy, that she will never leave Cuba is not the point. What she wants is for her less-than-attentive husband to love her, and so she tries to impress him by cloaking herself in the glamour of distant countries; at the same time, her husband indulges in his own fantasy life, worshiping a young woman he drives for free in his taxi. She has her eye on a different prize: the chance to move to a magical city called San Diego.
Whether these dense stories are set in Cuba, Colombia or the United States, all the characters have astonishingly complex relationships to places they’ve never seen or haven’t been to in many years, since they emigrated to another place. Hence the title, “The Faraway World.”
In “The Book of Saints,” a young Colombian woman longs for Medellín, her hometown, while trapped in an arranged American marriage to a man who limits her access to money and friends. In “Campoamor,” a novelist flits between girlfriends and pretends to write a book while fearing an impending move from Havana to Miami, where the truth about his life may be revealed.
The richest, most heartbreaking stories come at the end of the collection. In “Libélula”, a domestic worker addresses her employer, a fellow Colombian, summoning the intimacies and degradations she has been forced to endure while running a household in America. Her responsibilities included comforting a wealthy housewife after a miscarriage by sleeping in her bed — “You would pay me extra, you said, and I told you there was no need” — and covering up her employer’s husband’s sexual advances, as well as watching cooking specials on TV so she can expand her repertoire beyond beans and rice; her employer calls this “peasant food.”
Finally she escapes, waiting for an afternoon when her employer is too drunk to notice. What makes this story so moving is how much love this woman shows her employer, how much patience and understanding. The effect is devastating and unforgettable, an emotional wallop in fewer than 16 pages.
Another standout is “Aguacero,” the final story, about a young woman who has been sexually assaulted by her boyfriend. When she meets Juan, who is 50, on the sidewalk in Manhattan, he immediately recognizes that Sara — not her real name, just one she gives him — is from Bogotá. (The giveaway: She uses her cigarette to hail a taxi.)
Juan is also Colombian. When they develop a friendship, he reveals that he fled Colombia after being kidnapped. Though Sara refuses to share her crippling depression and fear of leaving her apartment, she does begin to meet Juan for coffee or a glass of wine. In small ways, these damaged, wary strangers find solace in each other. Years later, Sara looks back: “What stayed with me most was when Juan told me that even though people called him brave for having endured his imprisonment, he considered himself a coward because he hadn’t had the courage to try to escape.”
“The Faraway World” is a collection about the Latin American diaspora, but it’s also one that proves how Engel, like one of her characters, is capable of noticing that between any two people “a look reveals more than a fingerprint.”
Leigh Newman’s latest book is a story collection, “Nobody Gets Out Alive.”
THE FARAWAY WORLD | By Patricia Engel | 224 pp. | Avid Reader Press | $26