mellish (scratchmist) wrote,
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Soledad's Sister [Book Review]

Edit: 3/5/09

I'm really surprised at the response this entry has gotten - I'm assuming it's because this page probably crops up if somebody Googles the novel. And I realize that some of my comments may have been a little harsh, and have not given the novel due justice. I have utmost respect for Mr. Dalisay - I've been reading his weekly column since I was fifteen, and I think he is one of the best writers in our country - so I don't mean to bash his book. I was simply giving the impression (in as interesting a manner as I could) I got from my first reading of the text. In fact, reading it as a school requirement might have taken some of the fun out, for me.

I've thought about deleting this entry, because I don't want to offend anyone and I'm starting to worry that it makes me seem very mean, but I also believe in free discussion, and everyone has been polite with their opinions so far. :) Also, your insights are awesome! Hopefully someday I will reread the book and revise my opinion on it - oftentimes I do like something better after a second reading. So, everyone is free to post their response to the book (and to my review, I suppose), but I might not respond anymore, and I want to restate once again that I wrote this simply for fun (and if it helped anyone, then good).


So. I finished the first required reading novel for Literature 13: Soledad's Sister by Jose Dalisay, which was shortlisted for the Man Asia Prize.

These two cuts contain lengthy stuff. Just a warning. Haha. Also, just a disclaimer: this is purely my opinion, and I'm no expert on anything. And I really don't mean to sound degrading or insulting, if ever it comes across that way.


This book started out promising, really. I've always respected Butch Dalisay for his knowledge on writing, and on Philippine literature in general. While I've only ever read his Penman column and a few of his poems, I always thought that he'd be - at least - different as a Filipino writer, meaning he wouldn't just follow the cut-and-paste telenovela mold that most of our local stories contain. Well, he was able to overcome it, in some ways, and I really applaud him for his effort. But in the end I still got disappointed. u_u

The story begins with a clinical description of events in the NAIA airport, introducing the somewhat journalistic feel of the novel. I'm not really fond of novels with textbookish flavor (in the same way I initially disliked Mirror, Mirror), but it isn't necessarily a bad thing. The editing is really impressive, too - I think this is the only locally published book I've read (discounting those of poetry) that does not have at least one glaring typo or grammar mistake. So good job, editors. (You know that Chinese Squadron book? The awkwardness of the back page alone made me want to tear my hair out. Sorry if anyone's related or is a fan.)

The story develops really well, and while the descriptions and side stories do go on for a bit more than what I think is absolutely vital to the story, this makes the characters really well fleshed-out. In fact, if the point of the book was simply to be a character study, and a portrayal of current life in the Philippines, then it really does the job. It has tons of realistic details, many of which were appealingly familiar to me - like Corinthian Gardens, and 'the Megamall,' and tropical rainstorms and all that. I mean, it was nice to hold a book in my hands and read about places I've actually been too (very frequently) for once, instead of just imagining the usual New York or London, which are the settings for most popular books.

Also nice is the fact that the cast of characters arrives fully developed, each with their own fabulously angsty back stories and their interesting quirks - some of which, unfortunately, I find too good to be true. Like the main character cop loves to solve crosswords and is ponderously good at solving crime, and Soledad would read tons of Reader's Digest, despite the fact that she received little education. (I'm sorry if this offends, I just find them hard to believe, based them on what I've observed in real life so far; then again, it could be I'm just sheltered, or snooty.) Otherwise, though, you recognize the Pinoy-ness in them so much, they could be actual people you'd find on any of our crowded streets. Another good thing about the novel is the way the author was able to include a bit of every genre - there's the quintessential mystery and drama, but there's also romance, angst, horror, and comedy.

The book's real problem for me is the plot. You know how the description on the back is supposed to whet your appetite for the story, and leave out any big details so that you can enjoy reading them properly, in the novel? Well, in this book, the back description pretty much just summed up the whole book. That's it. There's nothing more. Have a look:

A Paez policeman, Walter, is assigned to drive out to Manila to pick up the body, accompanied by Rory. Both Walter and Rory, who vaguely know each other, find their own lives redefined by the sudden return of the dead: Walter has been left by his wife and son for a new life in England; Rory feels herself standing on the brink of great prospects, ambitions that her sister never achieved. Somewhere on its long way home, the body gets stolen, and things get even more confused than ever.

The story goes up and up and up. And then, once the ending comes, bam, it hits a flat line. Yes, the body gets stolen. Yes, things get even more confusing...and stay that way. The novel just ends, without clearing anything up. There is practically no resolution whatsoever. The last chapter was anticlimactic, the main characters just...drive off into the sunset, having magically resolved (or at least, having magically started to resolve) their self-conflict.

Another thing that saddens me about this novel is that it still isn't universal enough. What I mean is, I wouldn't have picked it up unless it was required reading, at least not out of all the other books to tempt me in a bookstore; and I'm a Filipino. What more if I were a foreigner? A big plus point for the book was how it connected with me due to the familiarity of the setting, the events, the characters. Unfortunately, I'm not sure if foreigners will be able to appreciate it the same way - if I weren't a native, I wouldn't really know why I should feel for these characters, or even for this country's sorry plight.

For example, majority of the men in this novel were womanizers with mistresses or second-wives or favorite prostitutes - and of course from that statement you know what role majority of the women played. I think that's just a really unflattering way of depicting us. =( I mean, it might be true (does every guy really have to have someone he can just -bleep- when he feels like it?), but he could have shown some of our nicer qualities - even stuff like our being religious, or working all over the world, came out in a kind of negative light. I was hoping something like our optimism, or our persistence, which I think Rory was supposed to symbolize, would redeem 'the Filipino person' in the story, somehow - but it didn't, not really, and not without a good reason.

To sum.
The good: Clean editing, clever blending of different genres, interesting cast of characters
The bad: Um. Where on earth is the ending?? Also: are Filipinos really that horny??

Overall score: 6.5/10 - Well, compared to The Bamboo Dancers, the story is less telenovela-ish and has better reasons overall, and the characters are easier to sympathize with because they could actually exist. But unlike books by, say, Banana Yoshimoto or Khaled Hosseini, I still think most readers wouldn't be engaged enough in the setting to understand the Philippines, much less care about it.



Soledad's Sister, a Summary by Mellish
Well, the back cover says all you need to know, but for those who want it in more detail, here we go. (Warnings for coarse language! This ain't a G-rated book, after all.)

A coffin arrives in NAIA bearing the name of a certain 'Aurora Cabahug,' who apparently drowned in Jeddah where she was working as a maid to a princess. Due to a mix-up with the arrival of some corpses (not very hard to imagine, really, local airports being what they are), the wrong family is informed that a loved one of theirs has died. They arrive all set to grieve, and then find out that it isn't the right body. Then for some reason this family (whose members never reappear again, so they don't really matter) decides that they would rather blow the funeral money on Luneta park. Yay. (As per the book, this is Evil Filipino trait #1 - we are greedy and would rather have fun that pay our respects.)

Next we meet Walter Zamora, a chain-smoking, broody cop who lives all by his lonesome (well, he lives with a cat called Kiamoy of little consequence) because his wife and son have left him to go live in Europe. Walter is well-educated and takes special pains to get the crossword from the daily papers, and he bears a lot of personal angst over Some Evil Thing He Did In The Past, which has caused him to exile himself somewhat in Paez. We later learn that this Evil Thing involves a case in which he hooked up with a seventeen year-old masahista named Noemi, who was linked to the kidnapping of some rich old pervert, who was her customer. (Evil Filipino trait #2 - the men can't get enough of boobies and, er, that other thing down there.) Walter, who was assigned to work on the case, was supposed to take Noemi down to the station for further questioning, but they stopped over at the Aristocrat (what is up with that restaurant in local lit?) and then...um...got jiggy with it. Walter ends up enamored with Noemi and they go off to Tagaytay to screw around for a few days (EFT # 3 - EFT #2 apparently applies to all men, even those married and with kids).

Unfortunately, while they were in Tagaytay, a. Walter's father dies, and b. Walter's wife Bessie, who calls him up to tell him the news, learns that he has a mistress, because it is Noemi who answers the phone. This depresses Walter rather, so much so that he ends up having violent sex with Noemi. Wow. What a way to grieve.

Anyway he goes back home to his father's funeral, and Bessie's all sad and avoiding him (of course!), and worse still he starts to think Noemi might have been involved with the kidnapping, being a part of it rather than being a victim of it. Anyway she disappears from his life mysteriously (in a 7-11, no less). Then Bessie forgives him (EFT# 4 - for some reason, Filipino women are willing to forgive their wayward husbands) and asks him to go abroad with her, but he hesitates, so she gets all quiet again and goes off on her own. Thus he has no more Noemi, no more Bessie, and no more Paolo. He thinks about his wife and kid sometime, enjoying Great Yarmouth, but he's overly consumed by his guilt when he does.

Back to present time. Walter goes to the police station and reads a letter addressed to the chief, mentioning the casket still waiting in NAIA. Walter doesn't believe the news, because he knows 'Aurora,' whom the letter claims is dead, is still alive - she is a singer in a bar he frequents, and she even put a cherry from a drink in his mouth once. He wants more than just the cherry, of course, but he's too shy to ask for more. Turns out that the dead girl borrowed her sister's name so she could work abroad, since her own passport was invalidated.

Now we are introduced to Aurora Cabahug, aka Rory, aka Soledad's Sister. (Aah.) Rory is a twenty-one year old girl who sings at the restaurant-bar, Flame Tree. You know this girl - the one who wins little singing contests, hoping to get discovered the whole time, making the most out of her birit in the meantime. She was able to finish two years of college, then flunked math and decided to earn a living instead. Blah blah excessive description of the Flame Tree, its owner, its frequent customers, and Rory's singing job (and even her singing teacher - I mean, it's interesting, but we don't really need to know every detail of a side character's life, especially if they're not gonna do anything substantial to the story). Anyway we are brought to the scene of one particular night wherein Rory has a sudden desire to give herself to her best patron, the vice-mayor Tenny Yip (we get lots of background on this guy, too), especially after a rival waitress catches his attention. She gets rather drunk but performs well anyway, and is really ready to go get laid with Mr. Yip when all of a sudden Walter comes, and she learns that her sister is dead.

She has a fainting spell. Oh, teh drama!11

The next day she meets up with Walter, who drives her all the way to NAIA so that they can retrieve the coffin. After some brief conversations in the bus with both Rory and Walter being touchy and brooding, we go back to long character exposition, this time about the Cabahug sisters.

For some reason, Rory was always the favorite, as the two were growing up. One day their mom came home from what I assume was a positive breast cancer examination. In a sudden burst of generosity (presumably because of her soon-to-be death), she gives Soli a couple of figurines, and Rory a music box. Soli feels terribly cheated and goes out to cry, whereupon her dad follows her and tells her about her mom (who apparently is the dad's distant cousin and not the same as Rory's mom), but of course she doesn't really care and doesn't understand. (I could so empathize with her in this part. Why did the dad suddenly make it about himself? Argh.) Anyway she goes to sleep distressed, and the next morning wakes up and boils some water for cooking, turns the fire up too high, and burns her father, mother, little brother, and house, to a crisp. Only she and Rory survive.

Soli then becomes an overzealous, pious freak, praying that God will forgive her (and cutting crosses into her wrist with a Gilette razor. Can you say emo?) for her terrible sins. She sort-of becomes Rory's yaya, too, allowing her own education to be neglected in favor of her younger sister, and fixing her clothes for her and all that. Later on in the story we learn that Soli goes abroad with the same purpose of securing a better future for her little sister. She becomes a yaya in Hong Kong for the Lau family, tasked mainly with tending to the senile old bedwetting grandma. And then, for reasons unknown, she suddenly has a desire to breed with the horny teenage boy in the family she works for (whose name is Hedison). He goes into her room, she exposes her thigh, and they do it. She then gets impregnated, and for some reason is really happy about it, although she doesn't mention it. Hedison, to his credit, is disturbed. But that doesn't stop him humping her again a second time, uncaring whether grandma hears it or not. Grandma does, but she can't talk, so it doesn't matter.

Mrs. Lau figures out that Soli is pregnant and promptly blames her husband for it. For some reason, grandma dies that same day (after, I think, incomprehensibly trying to explain how it was Hedison who screwed the maid). Hedison goes home the next day wantin some loving, but for some reason Soli has left completely. She goes home to begin anew with her sister and the child in her belly, building a house like their old one. After giving birth to her son Nathan, though, she decides she has to go abroad again to earn enough money to send both Nathan and Rory to school. And so she goes off. To Jeddah. End exposition.

Back in present time, Rory and Walter retrieve the body, then hungrily decide to have dinner at Aristocrat. It's getting kind of late, and it will be a rough drive back home, so Walter offers for Rory to sleep at his mom and sister's place. Unfortunately, when he calls them up, they have moved and he doesn't know how to contact them (not that he ever frequently did so), driving him into a panic. While this is happening we meet Jomar Pulumbarit (and learn his backstoryaspirationsfearstrialsetc, but we all saw that coming), who promptly steals the van they were using (he's a hired carnapper). He takes it halfway across the city, then freaks out when he realizes there is a coffin in it, because he's afraid of all things to do with the dead, because his dead brother keeps visiting him (when he's having sex with his wife, no less. o_o) He tries to dispose of the coffin by tossing it in the river, but his leg gets tangled up in the rope and he ends up drowning with it.

Rory and Walter discover the missing van and freak out. They go to a police station. For some reason Walter is more bothered by the fact that he doesn't know where his mom and sister is. After Rory sobs a bit in the station, she is comforted by a female cop, and starts to feel better. The story of Walter and Rory ends with the pair of them driving towards the home of Walter's mother and sister (he learned it through a letter they had sent to his house). Walter is eager to open a letter from his son; and Rory is filled with a sudden huge desire to be everything her sister couldn't be. These both seemed like such...blargh reactions to me. In the end they don't care about Soledad at all. o_o Oh yeah. And Jomar (the thief) and the body turn up all purple and bloated a few days later. End present time story.

The last chapter is a recount of what happens to Solidad in Jeddah. She meets the royal family, dutifully does her jobs as a yaya, and gets dragged away to the city with a friend, so that her friend can meet boys (including the prince's manservant). Then I think the boys they met kill either both of them, or only her; she was discovered floating a few days after the day out to town, her face totally ruined by sun and sea and nibbling fishes. The only testimony they can get is the manservant's, and he's the most likely murderer, so the case just closes. Soli, as we all know, is packed off into a box, shipped to Manila, where she suffers a second drowning. The end.

o_o Sorry. I guess that was an excessive summary. I got carried away.
Tags: book reviews, filipino literature
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    On the bookwormy side, here are some things of interest: * Twilight - Yes, that book, the chic-lit masquerading as an epic romantic fantasy. I know…

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