America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo
In her debut novel, Elaine Castillo takes the reader on a journey of sudden twists and turns
Elaine Castillo’s debut novel is about immigration, colour, trauma and family – those you are given and those you make your own. The tale opens with Paz, a nurse from a deprived background in the Philippines, who has moved to California. Later, the story switches to her niece, Hero, who has come to live with them after a debilitating injury; the story then follows Hero's journey towards recovering and making a home in America, with the help of her family and a hot-headed beautician named Rosalyn.
What Castillo shares is both colourful and raw, the latter partly helped by the fact that the narrative steps out of the body at certain intervals, addressing the reader as though they were the character being discussed: ‘This happens to you. This is what you know about it. This is what you decide to do.’ During these interludes, the emotional reactions are rarely laid out in front, very effectively leaving the reader to do all the feeling and so adding twice the intensity. Even in the third person, the narrator is coolly eloquent rather than a carrier, recalling the need for protective distance which often comes with trauma or a new home.
The sudden twists and turns the plot takes, along with the untranslated snatches of Tagalog and Ilocano which speak of roots, increase our empathy for the complex, troubled characters we encounter. The quick zip from one event to another especially reflects how Hero must live one day at a time before she can recover from her past.