Obejas, Achy. “Days of Awe”, Ballantine Reader’s Circle, 2002.
Alejandra San Jose was born in Havana, Cuba in 1959 while revolution was going on around her. Her parents, fearful of the danger going on fled with her to Chicago and settled with a group of other Cuban refugees. When Alejandra (Ale) matured into an adult she became an interpreter and returned to Cuba for her first visit back and she investigates her family history, learning a great deal. Her relatives had struggled with their identities and she made the outstanding discovery that her family was not Catholic but Jewish and was descended from those who were called “converses”, Jews who converted publicly to Christianity during the Inquisition of 1492 in Spain in order to save their lives. Many practiced Christianity openly and Judaism in secret. Now Ale was faced with dealing with being Cuban and American and Catholic and Jewish.
From the time she was a child, Ale could not ignore her Cuban heritage and roots even though she was being raised in America. Her American neighborhood, while Cuban, was primarily Jewish and as she grew she began to detect that her parents had something in common with their Jewish neighbors but it took her quite a while to discover that her father was indeed Jewish and her mother who was Catholic was descended from Jews. Through her father’s oldest friend, she learns more of her family’s history and through his son she learns the history of contemporary Cuba thereby being able to formulate her own identity based upon what she heard.
Obejas tackles the issues of faith, conversion and nationality is gorgeous prose and gives us a philosophical novel that delves into the nature of the heroine’s love relationships as well as the relationship between father and daughter. I found myself trying to decide what the author was thinking about when she wrote certain sections. She examines exile and return, loss and redemption. And yes there is sex in the novel—her sexual experiences help her to understand about her homeland, her new found religion and herself and she emerges as an erotic and complex personality.
I cannot resist but use the following as it says so much and so much better than I can:
“Obejas relates the compelling and disquieting history of Judaism and anti-Semitism in Cuba amidst evocative musings on exile, oppression, inheritance, the unexpected consequences of actions both weak and heroic, and the unruliness of desire and love. A journalist as well as a novelist, Obejas is also concerned with the biases and selectivity of history, politics, and the news. Richly imagined and deeply humanitarian, Obejas’ arresting second novel keenly dramatizes the anguish of concealed identities, severed ties, and sorely tested faiths, be they religious, political, or romantic”. Donna Seaman
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This is unlike anything I have ever read before—the glorious prose united with philosophical ideas made me think all the way through and while I am the son of Jewish immigrants to America there were never any questions as to who I was. I cannot imagine what Ale went through. Every Jewish child questions so much and in that way I saw a bit of myself in Ale. The difference was I questioned while living in a Jewish home and while there were times that I resented not being able to take part in Christian celebrations etc., I, like Ale, became that much stronger because of it.