Reviewed by Katya Rara
AMERICA IS NOT THE HEART
By Elaine Castillo
416 pp. Viking.
In a time of fake news, literature is one of the best ways to combat ignorance and apathy. If you’re lucky, Dekada ‘70 by Lualhati Bautista made its way into your required reading list in high school. Or perhaps you found Dogeaters by Jessica Hagedorn while browsing the shelves of your local bookstore.
America Is Not the Heart comes in after all that—after you’ve been informed of the facts and the horror, and now have room in your heart for another kind of story, in which the immediate dangers of martial law have passed, but its ghost lingers. And somehow that makes it even more arresting.
Elaine Castillo’s debut novel begins with the story of Paz, a nurse working multiple jobs in Milpitas, California. After escaping poverty in the Philippines, she builds a home with her husband Pol and daughter Roni, and a new self through the paychecks she receives from working two jobs.
But though the story begins with Paz, and never really leaves her family’s orbit, majority of the novel follows Hero de Vera, her husband’s niece, who they long assumed was dead.
Hero arrives in America damaged—the survivor of brutal torture during martial law, saved only, eventually, by the de Vera family’s proximity to the Marcoses. But her surname didn’t save her hands from being broken repeatedly by the military, or from the nightmares she now has about the lives she lived before this strangely banal one in the American suburbs.
At first, Hero’s world is small, consisting solely of driving her younger cousin Roni to school, and from there to the many faith healers Paz has consulted to cure Roni’s eczema. But soon she meets Rosalyn, a feisty young woman—and a faith healer’s granddaughter—who works in a nearby salon, and slowly but surely, her world expands, opening up to new family, friends, lovers, and even love.
America Is Not the Heart takes the reader from the Philippines to California and back in flashbacks and daydreams. Castillo similarly shifts tenses often, moving back and forth between the past, present, and sometimes even the future. But even though Castillo eschews quotation marks and italics, each part is distinct enough for the reader not to get lost.
Castillo has a great grasp of the subtle nuances that differentiate a Filipino from a Filipino-American, as well as the myriad of ways that Filipinos are connected, even across the oceans.
Similarly remarkable is how organically the relationships in the novel develop. Castillo steers away from high drama and focuses instead on realistic, sometimes undefinable interactions. Those looking for it will also love the growing connection, and later, relationship, between Hero and Rosalyn, who are opposites in almost every way.
Though America Is Not the Heart comes filled to the brim with characters, not all of them relatable or even likable, their stories all ring true. Castillo’s observations about Filipino and Fil-Am communities in particular, along with their privileges and prejudices, are heart-wrenchingly real; it feels like she has lived each of her characters’ lives, known them intimately, and laid them bare for all of us to see.
America Is Not the Heart reels in the reader by promising a story of martial law, but keeps their attention with a well-written family drama that touches on immigration, alienation, superstition, and even queerness. However, despite all the elements in it, the heart of the story is the question, How does a place become a home? How do people make a home for themselves?
Written from a place of deep fondness, familiarity, and love, Castillo’s first novel shines. It might take a second read to appreciate nuances that may have been overlooked the first time around, but that only means that it needs to be reread. Highly recommended.
America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo will soon be available at Fully Booked. Reserve a copy in advance here.
Katya has had a torrid romance with fiction for over two decades, and sneaks out in the middle of the day for clandestine rendezvous in cafés. She works in advertising and has four poodles. You can find her on Instagram @katerinarara.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]