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Review: Engel's 'Veins of the Ocean' a poignant voyage toward freedom

Published May 13, 2016

Reina Castillo has spent most of her life waiting.

As a little girl she always awaited the approval of her beloved older brother, Carlito. As she became a teenager she waited for boys to notice her, to desire her and then to leave her. And then, after Carlito committed a terrible crime, she waited in vain for legal appeals to free him — and then for his death sentence to be carried out.

Reina is the narrator of Patricia Engel's poignant new novel, The Veins of the Ocean, in which the lost, the exiled and the imprisoned float upon a sea of lush language, searching for a horizon that will offer them hope.

Engel, who earned an MFA at Florida International University in Miami, is a Colombian-American who grew up in New Jersey, and the author of two previous books, the short story collection Vida and a novel, It's Not Love, It's Just Paris. Both were impressive, but The Veins of the Ocean is her best yet.

Despite her regal name — Reina translates to "queen," Castillo to "castle" — Reina's life has been far from easy. Her working-class family emigrated from Cartagena, Colombia, to Miami when she was a child. There, her father grew ever more unstable and violent, until late one night he reacted to discovering his wife's unfaithfulness by taking Carlito, then 3 years old, out to the Rickenbacker Bridge that arcs gracefully over Biscayne Bay — and tossing the boy into the sea.

"The night fishermen," Engel writes, "thought they were hallucinating but one, a 60-year-old Marielito, didn't hesitate and went in after Carlito, jumping feet first into the dark bay water while the other fishermen tackled Hector so that he couldn't run away."

Convicted of trying to kill his son, Hector commits suicide in jail. His children don't learn about any of that until much later — although Reina always wonders "why my older brother got such special treatment his whole life. ... El Pobrecito is what everyone called him, and I always wondered why."

Raised by their resourceful mother, "a woman," Reina says, "who was capable of performing happiness no matter what," the two children are intensely close and protective of each other. That continues even after Carlito repeats his father's awful act — only this time, the child he tosses off the Rickenbacker Bridge, the daughter of his girlfriend, is swept away by the tide, no fisherman to save her.

For several years, Reina lives with her mother in Miami and spends every weekend in the small town in the Keys where Carlito's prison is located, giving up any personal life for the hour or two when she is allowed to talk to him and hold his hand.

After Carlito's death, Reina is bereft, washing up like a shipwreck survivor in a little beach cottage on an estate in the Florida Keys. At a local bar, she meets another exile. Nesto Cadena escaped from Cuba and works as a handyman, deploying skills gained over a lifetime of making things work in a system where buying a replacement for a gadget or a car isn't an option.

Both of them are deeply cautious, but their friendship grows and gains warmth. "He likes to compare our complexions," Reina tells us, "putting his arm next to mine, calls me 'canelita, ni muy tostada ni muy blanquita,' (a little cinnamon, neither too toasted nor too white) showing off his darkness, proof, his mother told him, of his noble Yoruba parentage and brave cimarron ancestors. ..."

But Nesto, too, compulsively visits those he hopes to set free: his two young children back in Havana. His mother and the rest of his family are still there, too, and so is his ex-wife. Most of what Nesto earns, and many of his thoughts, go toward supporting the family and trying to devise a way to bring his kids to the United States.

Nesto teaches Reina about his Santeria beliefs, based on the old gods brought from West Africa by the people enslaved in Cuba, assuring her that she is protected by Yemayá, goddess of the sea. He also teaches her to dive, introducing her to a whole mysterious world under the waves with which she falls in love — leading her to free yet another prisoner.

Reina's own voyage toward freedom is never smooth sailing, but Engel makes it a worthy trip, filled with fascinating characters and beautiful prose.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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