Lotería by Mario Alberto Zambrano



When the next Lotería  card opens, I will find out more about dear Luz. 

Synopsis of Lotería by Mario Alberto Zambrano: Prepare to be enthralled by this lyrical, achingly human debut novel about a young girl’s remarkable resilience in the face of loss. Struggling to cope as her family falls apart, eleven-year-old Luz María Castillo retreats into her beloved set of Lotería cards—a Mexican game featuring riddles and vibrant images. Each card represents a different memory, and as Luz shuffles through the deck, she weaves her recollections into a compelling story of love, loyalty, tragedy, and hope.

By turns affecting and inspiring, Lotería is a powerful novel that heralds the arrival of an outstanding new writer, one who reminds us of the importance of remembering, even when we are trying to forget.

My two cents

I found this story so powerfully raw and real that upon finishing it, I felt the compulsion to shout out my feelings to the world! I did the next best thing and shared the story with my husband over brunch, then I went on Goodreads and Twitter to attach my five stars to it. I can't recommend it enough.

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Luz is eleven years old and is being held in the custody of social services; her father is in jail and her sister is fighting for her life in the ICU. She is beseeched by Julia, the counselor, to tell the truth to save her father from a lifetime in jail. But Luz in her youth refuses to speak: suspicious, she doesn't seem to grasp what she should tell Julia nor does she know if she will even be believed.

Loteria cards
Loteria cards
Her aunt, Tencha, encourages her to use her beloved deck of Lotería cards -- the Mexican equivalent of bingo with colourful images -- to spark her memory and tell her story. As Luz turns over each card in the deck -- and literally you see the back of the card and when you turn the page to reveal the face -- it triggers a recollection of her family life ranging from the simple and mundane, to the fun and happy, to the more disturbing picture of domestic and sexual abuse and alcoholism.

The cards aid in piecing together the tragic events that lead to the sad situation that Luz is in. There is a pivotal scene with a jawdropping revelation where I couldn't help but  scream "Nooooooo....!" in my mind. The ending is unresolved which sits very well with me, making it open to possibilities and moreso hopeful in this sometimes overwhelmingly dark novel.

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This is a strong commentary about domestic abuse and its inevitable effects upon the household, particularly the emotional and physical scars that it can leave on the children.

It paints a very real picture, which within a very macho culture, makes for an even more twisted powerplay between husband and wife. Trying to cope with the disappointments of a difficult immigrant life, both parents try to shield their children as much as they can. But the abuse escalates with an increasingly frustrated father, egged on alcohol. Their mother suffers in silence, often fearing for her life. Luz's parents have fallen into a vicious and unnerving cycle.

Luz's observations are heartbreaking. She and Estrella cope in their own ways by hiding out when her father is on a rampage. She tries to act "normal" when she sees dark bruises on her mother. She reminds herself that her father is a good man and that it is all the fault of Don Pedro (the brand of the alcoholic drink). This childish justification is perpetuated by Tencha who forbids her nieces from speaking ill of their father; she continues to turn a blind eye to the abuse happening right under her nose. Their mother escapes further abuse by disappearing one day.

Inevitably, Luz is drawn into the very violence that she and her sister were spared from by their mother. This was spurred on by an encounter when Luz was just seven years old, which Luz dimly recalls as a  seemingly innocent incident at the hands of a lascivious uncle. Her father unleashes his temper and his violence upon her, leading to an injury that maims Luz.

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What I felt was very powerful in this novel:
The use of the cards as memory triggers, similar to writing prompts. I found this a creative and original way of letting the story unfold and I never felt it gimmicky. As a reader, you can delve deeper into these cards and meanings, riddles and answers, of the chances of what card is drawn. In fact, the book opens with a saying which I found the translation to, which may get you ruminating more about the themes of this novel: El que es buen gallo, en cualquier gallinero canta. (A good rooster crows in any chicken coop.)

It touches on many issues prevalent today and themes woven into the storyline that make for a rich context and which resonated profoundly with me.

The power of this novel is its brevity. Only 270 pages with many of them pictures of the Loteria cards, each of which lend to storyline in some way.

This is all told in the voice of an eleven-year-old girl. Disturbing and tragic, the story has stayed with me and it makes me feel heavy of heart. Since it is told from the Luz's perspective, she passes no judgment and has no malice whatsoever, making for even more painful reading for an adult. Throughout the book, I wanted to just reach out and protect her; I felt for her and I feel for many other children like her.

One is the inside view into the immigrant life. People leave the comfort of their own countries and cultures in search of a better life. But a richer material life, sadly, does not always translate to a better life. Luz's father nurtured a dream for his family but kept running into one hurdle after the other: difficulty in finding a job, the need to work backbreaking jobs, not getting the promotion. His own personal dreams take a backseat to the pressures of providing for his family.

Another is the cultural context within which this story takes place. The Hispanic culture is very male dominated. Women are expected to accept their place and be subservient to the male will. Even if domestic abuse is apparent, no one should stick their nose into what is deemed should stay between husband and wife. Even how Luz is conditioned to accept her father as a "good man" and how she consequently is torn between her loyalty to him and her very own well-being speaks volumes about the power of culture to shape our attitudes in life.

Uh-oh: A warning for those who dislike having their story cut up with dialogue or words in another language: You may be irked by the constant use of Spanish in this novel. I don't speak Spanish but was not especially bothered by it as I read through context (plus my native language, Filipino, has a lot of Spanish in it so I suspect that helped me along). I then followed it up by running a few things through Google Translate.

There are also many Hispanic cultural references which may get lost on those who have no idea about the strong religious (Roman Catholic) influences, of superstition, and of the communal/community nature of families.

Verdict: Deserves five estrellas! As the young Luz turns her Lotería cards, she tells me the unthinkable for someone so young: a profound, tragic story of how an immigrant Mexican family slowly unravels and is torn apart by domestic violence, alcoholism, and misplaced family loyalty. A memorable debut novel that made me go "wow" and will definitely get me looking for more of Zambrano's work.


About Mario Alberto Zambrano

Mario Alberto Zambrano

Mario Alberto Zambrano was a Riggio Honors Fellow at the New School and recently completed his MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as an Iowa Arts Fellow. He is a recipient of the John C. Schupes Fellowship for Excellence in Fiction. Lotería is his first novel.

Find out more about Mario at his website and connect with him on Facebook.
Visit the rest of the tour here.
I received an Advance Reader Copy through TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review.


Lotería by Mario Alberto Zambrano
Book Depository: Hardcover | Audible

Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: Harper (July 2, 2013)

14 comments:

  1. This book is gorgeous, such an eye-catching cover, and it sounds like a very compelling story to
    boot. I've never heard of this one before but will look out for a copy. Thanks for the review.

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    1. The cover really got me, Marie. I'm such a sucker for immigrant stories too. This is a debut novel and it just came out today (July2) so it will undoubtedly get a bit more exposure in the next few weeks! Hope you enjoy it when you get your copy!

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  2. Very thorough review! Loves it! I could feel the vibe of this read through your review and I love that. My only hesitation is the ending. I don't require stories to wrap everything up into a perfect bow BUT I like to feel sense of resolution. I find I don't get that feeling when things are left too open ended.

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    1. Don't mind me about the ending ... you'll need to read it to find out if it satisfies you :)

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  3. WOW!!! This book sounds like a must read. I know what you mean about wanting to shout from the rooftops how much you loved a book, and if that's how you felt about this one, then I need to get my hands on it.

    Thanks for being on the tour!

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    1. It really hit me, hard. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, Trish!

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  4. This is a very thoughtful review. I enjoyed the novel very much and I am working on an interview with the author for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Daniel. I look forward to your interview ... I am rather intrigued by the author and his backgrounds. All it says is he is a ballet dancer which has no bearing whatsoever on the story.

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  5. OOooO, I'm on the waiting list for this one at the library. Glad to read a positive review! I really knew nothing about it when I put it on hold. I just liked the cover and I gravitate toward adult novels with child narrators.

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    1. I always get a gut feel with covers :) hope you enjoy this one -- it really packs a punch!

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  6. Beautiful review! I appreciate the way you present your insights here....there were so many things to love about this novel, and I agree with you that its brevity was part of the beauty of the book.

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    1. Thanks for coming by and taking the time to comment, bibliophiliac! :) I do look forward to more from this author!

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  7. Great review! (btw, I *love* your blog header!)

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    1. Hi Melissa, thank you! (and another thanks for loving my girly elephant :P)

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