In The Age of Insight, Eric Kandel writes about the role of the observer in art: “Not only does the viewer collaborate with the artist in transforming a two dimensional likeness on canvas into a three-dimensional depiction of the visual world, the viewer interprets what he or she sees on the canvas in personal terms, thereby adding meaning to the picture. Riegel called this phenomenon the “beholder’s involvement.” Kris’s study of ambiguity in visual perception led him to elaborate on Riegel’s insight that the viewer completes a work of art. As a neuroscientist, Kandel focuses on the plastic arts, but his discussion brings us to the question of writing and specifically to the question of the “historical novel”. What does historical writing demand from the reader in order to “complete a work of art”?
There are three dimensions involved: Time, the writer’s mind, and the reader’s perception.
We know that writers filter reality, compress time, squeeze events, introduce ‘fictional’ aspects to such an extent that often the historical novel masquerades as a “quasi-memoir” splicing together documentation from time past with the writer’s art and craft of invention.
In other words, how much of an historical novel is history and how much is literary fiction? And, really, does it matter? And what has Eleanor Sapia Parker done in A Decent Woman (Scarlet River Press, 364 pages)?She’s written a novel whose characters are rooted in their time but with a deep reach into the present. She has brought us characters so well developed that as you read, you do not concern yourself with the historical truth of their lives, but you live in their time, in their midst, in their troubles, in their dreams and values. In the novel, these characters read as true, and that is the goal, I think, of any novel—to lift the specific, historical moment out of its time and force it into our consciousness in a way that lets us choose to accept the time warp and to live in it with glee. If the writer does not handle it well, this historicity becomes costume drama in which character and story are, in fact, secondary to the historical fact.
In A Decent Woman, Parker-Sapia helps us, the readers, overcome our insulated perspective by giving us a multilayered novel that deals in depth and detail with Man’s cruelty and infidelity to Woman. Parker-Sapia’s novel is set in Puerto Rico at the turn of the twentieth century, yet these lines could have been written in any time:
…But what of the men who played one woman against the other? The same men—who wrote the laws, enforced the laws, enforced the laws against prostitution and adultery, spoke about the sanctity of marriage and la sagrada familia—were the men who slept with women other than their wives…
From the Macro to the Micro, Parker-Sapia zeros in on a cultural affliction that speaks to every 21st Century woman who has ever thought about going to a battered women’s shelter:
No matter how much Serafina complained about Roberto, her marriage, and cried over his mistreatment, hurtful words, and temper, she always took him back.
This dreadful theme binds A Decent Woman to our time and shows us, as readers, that our foibles have roots in the past. This too, is, I think, the goal of the novel—to lift us out of our temporal provincialism and to deliver us to a political reality that understands the terror of domestic abuse.
A Decent Woman is not, however, simply a treatise on the war of the sexes. It is a full-blown novel rich with detail of its time, ripe with conflicted characters searching for meaning, and thick with cross-cultural themes. As we slip toward the end of the second decade of the 21st Century, we need to look into the historical mirror to understand that what we take for granted—freedom—is never won easily and can be taken away with the stroke of a pen.
In this novel, in the face of a male-dominated and male-defined world, Parker-Sapia shows us how women find the strength to go on and in the end to overcome the limitations a male-dominated culture places on the women.
As a writer, I no longer read for entertainment. I know the stories being told will mirror or mask stories that have been told hundreds of times. As a writer, I look at how a novelist pulls it off—what does she do to the material to make it interesting to me—a man—and how does she do it. I am interested in language, in the art of writing, and in the craft and control, and in A Decent Woman, I find the work of a writer who understands and controls the craft of detail without becoming predictable or clichéd. Parker-Sapia not only brings us into the visceral world of a midwife,
Ana washed her hands, and spread lard on her hands and on Serafina’s inner thighs and outer genital area. With a hand on Serafina’s thigh, Ana introduced her hand under the slip, opened the labia, and passed her fingers into the vagina. Serafina winced. The cervix was soft and dilated. Ana hoped the baby would pass through the birth canal without incident, and wondered if the young mother was mentally prepared to deliver a child. At this age, they hardly ever were. “It won’t be long now,” Ana said, seeing the bloody show on her fingers. The pinging sound of water dripping into the aluminum pots echoed from the main room.
she also surrounds us with detail that comes only from a deep read of expert texts or draws from experience and in either case, the historicity gives way to the novelistic:
She shut the door behind her, and her eyes grew accustomed to the dim light from a solitary lit candle inside a rusty, faded blue tin. Pearls of hot wax from the burning candle settled in a small pile near a wood box of white candles. There were several cast iron pots on the wood floor for catching rain water—a common sight in hurricane season. Ana laid her satchel on the floor, and lit the wick in the oil lamp. She counted ten candles, and spotted a stack of folded rags on a chair. Roberto had listened well. When she raised the wick, the silhouettes of a bed, a dresser, and a low table were illumined behind a gauzy curtain. Ana replaced the glass globe of the oil lamp, pulled the curtain aside and found Serafina, sleeping in an iron bed.
As a writer, I hear the call to “detail, always the detail, god is in the detail”, but detail for its own sake is writing school bloat. In A Decent Woman there is none of that. It is the precision of the work and the flow of the words that makes this such a satisfying novel. In Puerto Rico, at the time of the novel’s setting, Santeria is a folk religion living side by side with the Christian. Ana, the midwife, lives in both worlds as she prepares a healing procedure:
“Lie down. If the sun sets, the healing will not take place,” Ana said, placing the squares upon Serafina’s chest and throat. Ana knocked three times on the wood table to call the orishas to her. “Eleguá, I ask permission to invoke Osaín in the healing of my friend. Please help me, as you help all healers,” Ana whispered, brushing away tears with the back of her hand.
Ana then flicked Agua Florída cologne around the house to cool the spirits, and with a gnarled wooden broom, starting at the back of the house, she swept the negative energy out the front door, and down the stairs. Once she was satisfied, she tied a brown felt scapular to the bedpost in honor of El Niño de Atocha, the god Changó’s Christian counterpart. Ana stood at the foot of the bed, waiting for a sign the spirits were with her, and then, Serafina fell asleep. Ana frowned. “There’s something in this house. I can feel it.” With hands on her hips, Ana surveyed the room, wondering what she had missed. Then, it came to her. She lit a candle, and filled two cups with water. She placed one behind the front door to absorb all negative forces, and the other under Serafina’s bed. Ana had performed these rituals in her home and others’ homes many times. Every weapon in Ana’s spiritual arsenal was employed to keep Serafina and the children protected, and then, she said a brief prayer for Roberto. Once Ana was satisfied the house and family were protected, she opened a second window to circulate the air. As the sun began to set, her uneasy feelings returned. For the first time, Ana doubted her healing abilities, and those of her Saints which frightened her.
So, is A Decent Woman a woman’s novel, an historical novel, a literary novel, a novel set in another time? Is the term historical novel misleading? If the writing works, and if the story line is pure and true and if the characters in the writing come alive, then there is no need to question the roots of the novel at all. In a sense all fiction is historical if by historical we mean set in a time not the present moment. Any contemporary fiction will be historical in fifty years. That much we know. I would say that A Decent Woman, can be seen as an historical novel, but at another level, it is a literary Puerto Rican Cinderella tale.
Serafina, one of the protagonists begins the novel married to a merchant sailor. Through much of the novel she struggles with the downside of being a widow, and then she re-marries:
Serafina’s knees felt weak as she took her place in the Cathedral. Every dark wood pew of the magnificent Cathedral Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe was filled with wedding guests, with sprays of white flowers at the end of every pew. Prisms of colored light emanated from the tall stained glass windows, and warmed the interior. The scents of flowers and incense were intoxicating. Serafina’s eyes followed the white runner to the large altar, which was ablaze with candles and white floral arrangements, and at the altar stood the Bishop, Antonio, her handsome husband-to-be, his two groomsmen, and her new friends, Laura and Mercedes. Serafina smiled when the baby inside her belly kicked. Finally, she heard her cue, and proceeded down the aisle to her new life with Antonio San Patricio.
–Jack Remick, author of Blood, 2011