kissing the virgin's mouth, win-
ner of the Bellwether Prize for fiction, is a punchy, poetic book that goes behind the tourists' Mexico of devil's masks and margaritas to give us a character as authentic as warm corn tortillas.
Sitting on a chair cemented to her rooftop -- a place reserved for laundry and dogs -- in the wealthy Golden Zone of Teatlán, Sinaloa, Guadalupe Magdalena Molina Vásquez, Magda to her family, practises for her impending blindness by telling her life story to her media gringa daughter.
Since her girlhood in the squalid barrio Rincón, Magda has believed she is tocayas (in touch) with Lupa -- her special name for Mexico's dark-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe, with whom she shares a name and skin colour.
But she never takes the virginity part to heart. Early on she discovers the power her cosita gives her over men.
Guided by a cheap china statuette of Lupa and the voices of her ancestors, Magda sets out on a journey that takes her from selling corn alcohol off a back-alley cart to a sprawling hacienda, a drug ranch, the murals of Orozco, cold suburban Idaho and, finally, back to Teatlán as the owner of a juice bar.
First-novelist Donna M. Gershten works the rich Spanish of the calles into the text without seeming precious. It's the small Mexican touches -- the salivatingly delicious smells from the taco stands, a doughnut machine shitting churros into a vat of fat, the street dogs with legs too short for their bodies -- that propel the story off the page.
Like Mexico, Magda never stops kissing the Dark Virgin's mouth. Together as sisters -- and symbols of all the defiled women in Mexican history -- they sit proudly, beaming gratitude to the Sea of Cortés.
Kissing The Virgin's Mouth by Donna M. Gershten (HarperCollins), 228 pages, $34.95 cloth. Rating: NNN