Vanishing Maps: A Novel

  • By Cristina García
  • Knopf
  • 272 pp.

An intricate, rewarding portrait of a globe-spanning, multigenerational family.

Vanishing Maps: A Novel

Rarely have I read a book that centers so strongly on a particular country (in this case, Cuba) yet takes place almost exclusively outside its borders. Cristina García’s sweeping Vanishing Maps follows members of the Del Pino family, most of whom were born in Cuba but have since left the island for a variety of reasons. The story is a testament to both the complexity and the divisiveness of filial connections, as well as a commentary on the effect world politics can have on individuals.

A significant part of the novel is told through the eyes of six cousins: Pilar, Luz, Milagro, Ivanito, Irina, and Tereza. Pilar, having escaped Cuba and her mother’s narcissistic grip, now lives in Los Angeles, where “the sky was striated with fuchsias and maroons and shot through with neon tangerines.” Luz and Milagro reside in Miami, “a double helix, impossible to separate.” Ivanito, having fled his mother’s attempt to kill him with poison-laced coconut ice cream as a child, works as a translator in Berlin and performs there as La Ivanita, a drag queen.

Irina calls Moscow home, having successfully privatized a formerly state-owned brassiere factory: “Two years ago, when she’d handed off her last cash payment to the mobsters who’d bankrolled her factory, Irina wore a bulletproof vest and had a Tokarev tucked inside the holster of her thigh-high boot. (By then she was proficient with multiple firearms, including Makarovs and Kalashnikovs.)” And Tereza, Irina’s twin, has lived her whole life apart from all of them, having been separated at birth under nebulous circumstances.

Interspersed with these narratives are those of other relatives, each confronting some turning point in their lives. As the characters traverse continents and memories, their individual traumas emerge, reminding them that the past is always nearer than we think. Ivanito’s mother’s ghost returns to haunt him, while in Havana, the cousins’ grandmother, Celia, receives a letter from her long-ago lover in Spain that jangles “with its noisy tambourines of words.”

Although the characters start out dispersed across the globe, a gradual accretion occurs as their lives take them in surprising directions. After Pilar’s mother, the politically vigilant Lourdes, ensnares Pilar’s son, Azul, in a campaign to keep a Cuban boy in Miami rather than return him to his father in Cuba, Pilar and Azul flee to Berlin. There, she reconnects with Ivanito and introduces him to Azul, who idolizes his uncle and La Ivanita’s impressive wardrobe:

“Azul reveled in his uncle’s hundred-plus hat collection: outrageous and demure, with feathers and without, seductively veiled, or piled high with kitschy accoutrements, including a glass rooster brooch.”  

Businesswoman Irina makes her way to Berlin separately for the opening of her flagship store in Germany. After the ceremonies, she heads to Tangolandia, a queer dance space, where she encounters her long-lost twin:

“There was no room for the irrational in Irina’s life, so what she saw next stole her breath. Lingering at the far end of the dance floor was an exact replica of herself staring back. The stranger was dressed in a sailor suit, her cap concealing most of her short, wavy hair. But their overall assemblage of flesh and bones was identical.”

As Irina and Tereza tango, they discover that they are, in fact, sisters, though the mystery of their separation will persist, as Tereza is unwilling to disturb her ailing mother’s memories of the past. They later encounter Ivanito, Pilar, and Azul and marvel at the unintentional confluence of everyone in this country far from their homeland.

Meanwhile, Celia, heeding the call of her own ghosts, makes her way to Granada to meet with her elderly former lover. Their story is more straightforward than that of the cousins and provides heartwarming interludes interspersed amid all the familial drama.

Not only is García a masterful writer, effortlessly weaving together multiple narrative strands, she also demonstrates a remarkable facility for languages, switching from English to Spanish to Russian to German with ease. (A particularly poignant moment comes when a friend of Ivanito’s addresses him in German with a feminine diminutive, subtly acknowledging his drag persona.) Vanishing Maps is, at heart, a book about family, yet it’s also about geography, culture, and language. There is something for everyone in its pages.

Mariko Hewer is a freelance editor and writer. She is passionate about good books, good food, and good company. Find her occasional insights at @hapahaiku.

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