Although described by reviewers as a series of short stories, the first part of this book, set in Nicaragua, reads to me like a novel in its vivid portrayal of an observant, imaginative girl, perhaps destined to be a writer, trying to make sense of an alien world, her perceptions inevitably limited through being only ten years old.
Her idealistic perhaps unconsciously selfish father has uprooted his family from Indiana to Managua in the 1980s, to enable him to work as a peace activist for “Roots of Justice”, dedicated to campaign against the Contra terrorists, supported by President Reagan, who are attacking the recently established left-wing government. Juliet’s beautiful mother Gloria, her continual smoking no doubt a symbol of her stress, apparently only really happy when lost in singing to her own guitar accompaniment, generally seems sharp-tongued and burdened by childcare, most of her limited store of love and attention being being devoted to her infant son Emmanuel.
Meanwhile tomboy Juliet roams with increasing confidence, scrapping and bickering with her brother Keith who seems to adapt more easily to the situation, picking up Spanish quickly and performing better when the pair eventually get sent to school. Although they do not seem close, they share a bond based on their unusual common experience. With the typical irresponsibility of childhood, the two manage to leave Emmanuel behind at a neighbouring house where they have been offered drinks, but he is brought back to them by a group of local girls who handle him much better than Juliet – unlike her, they are only a few years off falling pregnant and becoming mothers.
A good deal of humour stems from Juliet’s perspective as a child: communism is “bad” back home but the Nicaraguan brand is “good” because it involves “sharing”. She learns about poverty and inequality without understanding it: observing how their maid Bianca steals “diapers” and Gloria’s red blouse when she whisks them away to be washed, but how she lives in a slum partly destroyed by recent fighting, and also makes them chicken soup when they fall ill in their father’s absence, admittedly pocketing some of the money taken to buy them food.
Juliet also notices without understanding how her father may be flirting with a young volunteer, overtly infatuated with him while, probably depressed, Gloria falls easy prey to the attentions of a charming married expatriate with a wandering eye.
This evocative and original section of the book, which completely engrossed me, comes to an end when a combination of Keith’s severe illness and the dangerous escalation of Contra activity drive Gloria to insist on returning to the States. The second part appears to be Juliet’s own diary, written with changing points of view and styles as she witnesses her parents’ marriage fall apart and has her own offspring and infidelities. I have struggled to understand why I so quickly lost interest and failed to engage with this change of tack. Perhaps it is because it is too disjointed, characters are introduced abruptly without being developed, points are either too unclear, or explained rather than being left for us to sense.
Oddly, a book reminiscent of “The Poisonwood Bible” has the same flaw to a stronger degree for “western” readers, namely a brilliant, absorbing first part set in a strikingly “different” developing country, with a less successful second part dealing with the more familiar developed world.