"How can you be happy when you're invisible?"
In Patricia Engel's terrific debut book, Vida, a relative asks that question when narrator Sabina and her family visit her parents' homeland of Colombia. It's a question that echoes in many contexts throughout these nine linked short stories.
Sabina is the unifying factor, her voice a wisecracking, cynical but sharply observant presence whatever her age. (The stories' chronology is not linear, but we get slices of her life from age 7 to her mid 20s.)
In the first story, "Lucho," she's 14 and living in "a town of blancos. I don't know how we ended up there. There's tons of Latinos in New Jersey, but somehow we ended up in the one town that only kept them as maids." Her Colombian background isn't the only thing that makes her feel like an outcast: The hottest gossip in town is about her uncle, who is her father's business partner — he's on trial for killing his wife.
The relative's question about invisibility comes in the collection's last story, but the theme is introduced in the first. The title character, Lucho, is another outcast, the stepson of a wealthy doctor. He's a handsome 16-year-old but odd and often dirty, with greasy hair and "a white button-down shirt that looked like it only got washed in the sink."
Tough-talking but protective Lucho, Sabina tells us, "came looking for me when I was invisible," and their friendship seems somehow to have always been — although Lucho's secrets are not what Sabina expects.
In "Green," Sabina is in her 20s but drawn back to the past when Maureen, the mean girl who tormented her all through high school, asks her for help. Maureen is in the grip of an eating disorder that has left her a grotesque shadow of herself whose "thighs were the size of your wrist. . . . She was just twenty-two or so then, already looked like a corpse."
Sabina, it seems, had a bout with bulimia herself in high school. " 'How did you stop?' Maureen wants to know." She acts as if they were once the best of friends, which unsettles Sabina almost as much as her growing sense of the possible reasons Maureen tortured her.
Many of the stories deal with Sabina's search for romantic love — although "search" might be too strong a word, given her propensity for aimlessly falling in and out of relationships. When she does choose, she tends to choose badly. In "Refuge," she is alone in her apartment in lower Manhattan when the 9/11 attacks occur — a "near-death experience" because she had a job in one of the towers, as a bank receptionist, but called in sick that day.
Heartsick is more like it, because of her recent breakup with Nico, a moody musician who's "not really that talented. . . . But those lashes. They could split your will into shards." When Lou, her fatherly guitar teacher, shows up looking for her, she's grateful but can't help wishing it were Nico at the door, even though their relationship was mostly sex and screaming.
When Lou's adolescent daughter asks her what she does for a living, Sabina thinks, "I'm only twenty-two. I don't do anything for a living except smoke cigarettes and throw my heart around."
The next day, just like in a movie, Nico is in her apartment, having walked into the ruined city to find her. "We tuck into each other like origami, fall asleep like captive hamsters, our lips touching, pretending we're each other's reasons for surviving the cataclysm."
But the night before, sheltered at Lou's house, Sabina has not only watched the numbing disaster on the TV screen but observed the relationship between Lou and his wife, "everything he ever wanted in a lady: smart, f---ed-up, and beautiful." And she knows how her story with Nico will end.
Vida, of course, is Spanish for "life," but it's also the name of a character in the book's title story. Sabina is living in Miami, teaching school and hanging out with her Hungarian boyfriend and his friends. One of them is Vida's boyfriend, Sacha: "It was her man who did the talking with a fixed hand on Vida's waist, and you'd almost think she was his prisoner . . ."
Because Vida is Colombian, she and Sabina forge a wary friendship that leads to the revelation that she was indeed a prisoner. In Colombia, Vida was (like Sabina) a beloved daughter and (like Sabina's mother) a beauty pageant queen. Her hairdresser convinced her he had show business connections in Miami, but after he took her there he disappeared, having sold her to sex traffickers.
For a year, she isn't even allowed to leave the house. Sacha is one of the brothel's guards. Vida describes for Sabina getting a beating so terrible her eyes swell shut; afterward, Sacha puts her, blind, on his motorcycle, drives her to the ocean and carries her in for a strange sort of baptism, a revival of her spirit.
Then he takes her back to the brothel.
They have both escaped it by the time Sabina knows her, but Vida wants to go home. She would die before she would tell her family what happened to her, so she needs help for yet another escape.
Author Patricia Engel, a young Colombian-American who earned an MFA in creative writing at Florida International University, makes an impressive debut with this collection. She's especially adept at dialogue and control of Sabina's voice at various ages, and she has a gift for startling images — and for knowing not to overdo them.
Vida is rich with life. Sabina's story is one of millions of threads of the immigrant experience, but it is universal as well: We all search for our place in the world, for the one who can make us visible.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.