VIDA by Patricia Engel (Grove), 161 pages, $16.95 paper. Rating: NNN
2010 has been great for new fiction writers - Brando Skyhorse's stirring stories about Mexican Americans trying to assimilate in Los Angeles, aboriginal writer Drew Hayden Taylor's sly first novel, GG short-lister Motorcycles & Sweetgrass.
Add Patricia Engel to that list. Her direct and unsentimental short stories span several years in the life of Sabina, whose Colombian family tries to come to grips with life in a white New Jersey neighbourhood. She eventually leaves to pursue a life of partying in Miami and artistic interests in Manhattan.
The opening story deftly sets the stage for Sabina's habit of drifting and seeking involvements with all the wrong guys. Coming from South America would have been enough to isolate her family, but her uncle's conviction for the murder of his wife - alluded to in the first line of the first story - is the main reason they're shunned.
Though she feels invisible in high school, Sabina's noticed by the local bad boy, who teaches her the meaning of friendship before disaster occurs. In other stories, Sabina, though obviously intelligent and passionate about writing, loses interest in school and looks for action in Florida. Stories set there depict the drifters and drug dealers she connects with and are told with matter-of-fact insight into the desperation of illegal immigrants.
I first encountered Engel at an Authors Festival event this year, where she shared a round table with formidable and much better-known writers Andrea Levy and Adam Gopnik on the subject of coming of age through storytelling.
She not only held her own but also offered powerful insights into how to write from children's perspectives - specifically pointing out that kids lack the vocabulary of judgment. Her clear-eyed comments drew me to her work.
It doesn't disappoint.
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