29 January 2011

Soledad's Sister by Jose Dalisay, Jr.

Soledad's Sister by Jose "Butch" Dalisay is the first Philippine novel to be shortlisted for the distinguished Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007. I remember reading about the Man Asian at that time and finding out about Dalisay's shortlisted novel. And I recall thinking, "Well, that sounds about right." After all, Butch Dalisay is one of the country's premier writers.This much is evident when you read Soledad's Sister.

Way back in college, I was fortunate enough to have Butch Dalisay as one of my professors. The class was an undergrad course on Survey of American Literature, and I remember every single story and poem we took up to this day. I also remember him reading to us one of his essays during class. He had his Mac open on his desk and was reading his essay from the screen. Back then, I was thinking, "This should be boring. But it isn't." And I realized it wasn't boring because I was entranced by his words.

The summary for Soledad's Sister is similarly entrancing. A coffin arrives at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila, but the name on the coffin, Aurora Cabahug, is not the actual identity of the body. Rather, Aurora is the sister of Soledad, the body in the coffin. Soledad used her sister's name to acquire a job in the Middle East as a nanny, leaving behind her son in order to earn more money to secure their future. There, however, she died, and though there are traces of foul play, her death is unsolved and her body is sent home.

Rory, the sister, receives the news in her far off province where she works as a club singer. She sets off on the long journey to fetch her sister's body and is accompanied by Walter, a policeman who exiles himself to Rory's province after he was left by his wife and son. When they finally get the body, however, it is stolen from them and, according to the back cover, "things get even more confused than ever."

What I liked about Soledad's Sister is the lyricism of the writing, the surprising turns of phrases that I would stop at and think about, such as this one referring to Walter's hesitance to answer his sister's calls:
He rarely answered and never instantly; sometimes he called long-distance when he was in strange places and assaulted by a sudden fear of being devoured headfirst by yawning oblivion.
Moreover, Dalisay has created wonderful character studies for all of his characters, main and minor alike. I felt like I knew them all: Soledad, who has to leave her child and family to seek her fortune in foreign lands; Rory, who dreams of making it big through her innate singing talent; Walter, the down-and-out and all-too-fallible cop who still tries to act according to his principles. Even the airport personnel, the local politician, and the body thief are painted excellently. We know their background and motivations, and these people seem very real.

The narrative shifts point-of-view from one character to another, so we enter even Soledad's thoughts during her first trip abroad to Hong Kong. This also allows us not only to know the characters themselves, but to know how the characters perceive each other. In my opinion, it all aids to the roundedness of Dalisay's creations.

Everything seems to be revealed. Except, of course, the ultimate knowledge--why did Soledad die?

And this is where I felt that the book could've been much more, could've said much more. It felt like the story was just beginning. I've read other reviews saying that the way it ends reflects our lack of identity. But if I had a peso for every writer, professor, or personality who talked about lack of national identity... Does the unending discussion about lack of national identity actually help find national identity? Or does it just perpetuate this perception and leave no resolution?

Personally, I don't mind books without a resolution. If it makes sense not to have one (e.g., McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, Tana French's In the Woods). But given that everything else was revealed, that there was no constraint about point of view, that we were given access to Soledad's thoughts and experiences, the holding back of this last piece of information--why and how she died--did not seem organic to the entire story.

Who knows, though? Mayhap Butch Dalisay will write a sequel or an epilogue to the story. Because, if we're going to talk about Filipino identity, I think we deserve to be known and to know ourselves. I think our story needs to be told. And I, for one, would like Soledad's story told until the tragic end.

Setting aside my preferred story changes, though, I still think Soledad's Sister is a book that people should read, particularly those who are into literary fiction. The writing itself is both beautiful and accessible. And for Filipinos, it presents familiar characters and situations that may evoke unity and compassion for fellow countrymen. For non-Filipinos, it speaks of the third-world, postcolonial experience in our part of the world. Moreover, however you want the story to end, I think it's the kind of book that will leave you thinking about it way after you're done.

Finally, I'd like to thank Anvil Publishing for the complimentary copy of this book.


Aldrin said...

The coffin and the shifts in POV recall William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, but I think the similarity ends there.

The questions you posed about our national identity (or lack thereof) are especially striking. You were quick and honest to point out your problems with the book, but if anything they made me want to read the book myself. Beautiful review, Honey.

mel u said...

Great review-I have had this book on my mental TBR list for a while now-I will push it up in status now

fantaghiro23 said...

@Aldrin - Thank you. I'd be glad to hear your thoughts about the book. For all I know, I might be the only one who thinks the book seems unfinished.

@mel - Hope you read it, too. Would love to get into a discussion about this.:)

Norlan Chris Mallari said...

I read this book for 5 days.During the first time I read this, I thought that some of the details are unnecessary.But as I got up the 3/4 of the book, I realized that this book really inform its readers on what the characters' lives really are.