What is it exactly that makes a good character? Everyone seems to have an opinion. Plot is not the point, didn’t you know? It’s character. Or, if you want to be pernickety like Hemmingway, you could say ‘that when writing a novel, the writer should create living people, people not characters.’
Ah people, well that sounds easy. Just create one, two, five, twenty or forty complete and whole people. People, like they say, who can get up and walk off the page. Such an irritating phrase isn’t it? So sweepingly ignorant of how back-breakingly hard constructing a convincing character out of words can be. Irritatingly, it seems the cosmic and eternal ‘they’ may be right. Drifting away from the glittery allure of a complex plot to the rather less glamorous grit of a fully rounded character doesn’t exactly sound the most exciting of projects. Especially if that project is likely to be around 100,000 words long and take up anything from a year to decades of your life, but it does seem the way to develop a novel beyond something trivial to something memorable. But how do you this, when essentially all the author can do is offer a very short written explanation of a person? How do you make a whole life in something which you can carry in your bag?
Well a good place to start is with Elaine Castillo’s debut novel. On finishing America is not the Heart I was wondering how I was going to sum it up, I realised that plot-wise not a phenomenal amount actually happened. We weren’t whisked off on a whirlwind journey, beset by violence or seeking treasure, we were watching quietly and calmly as the main character in the book navigated the complexities of being a credible and complex person.
So, enter our hero, a young woman nicknamed Hero. Hero has come to California from the Philippines to live with her Uncle Pol and her Aunt Paz. She has two deformed thumbs from two severe breaks, but the reader is not told why yet. Hero will look after Roni – her niece – whilst she stays in her Uncle’s house. Here begins the slow and careful unravelling of Hero’s character.
Life is based in Milpitas just outside the city of San Francisco and it is 1990. Hero settles into the household and supports Roni in her day to say activities as Paz does shift after shift of nursing work to support the family. Roni is a sharp and funny eight-year-old girl who likes to get into scraps at school. Hero at first is quiet and shy, seemingly unable to find her voice in a new world where she has a foreign accent. To Hero, it seems that Roni at first emphasises the differences between them. Roni is carefree, loved by her family, she is outward and witty, and she encompasses an Americanised Philippine personality and has an assured American accent.
We follow Hero as she starts to fit in to the close-knit Philippine neighbourhood around her. The people around are predominantly from the Philippines or their parents were. This community is who we stick with through the whole book. There is no need to contextualise this community’s existence against a white American background. The story faithfully sticks to the world of its characters, exploring through the text the complexities of ethnicity, Filipino languages, Filipino food, even Filipino magic; the book explores the community in and of itself, noting difference as well as similarities. It is a whole and convincing take on a neighbourhood, one that doesn’t feel threatened by the white American world on its boarders and doesn’t apologise for sticking faithfully to its Filipino characters. It doesn’t dumb down for those who know little of this community, sometimes writing out exchanges in different languages and always mentioning Southeast Asian food and dishes. The environment that Hero explores is another character here, a full and vibrant one.
Hero, we learn is a conflicted character. We struggle to put our finger on who she is at first. She is addressed by various names according to whom is addressing her and their language/ethnicity. She is Hero, Geronima and Nimang, and she seems to have separated different areas of her life off like individual characters.
It is not until Hero meets Rosalyn and her family and friends, that more expressive elements of Hero’s character emerge. Until this point the reader gathers the sense of restraint that she is embodying, she is fearful of interrupting the family, she stays home and she all too often is politely refusing food. Her journey starts off slowly and quietly.
It is on encountering Rosalyn and the vibrant communal café that her family runs, that brings Hero out of her shell. As the gatherings and parties progress and plates of sizzling food are pushed into her hands she slowly opens up. She starts to express opinions, she experiences a full-blooded re-emergence of her sexual appetite and she starts to reconnect her former experiences in the Philippines. We see more flashbacks of her past work, loves and loses. A lot of bad experiences start trickling back to her. This drives the book forwards with a much greater pace and the reader becomes more engaged as this character develops. The second half of the novel is all the more enjoyable for this sense of progress. One might the first half a little slow as we wait for the real to emerge. All the same, the friendship and tension between Hero and Rosalyn is fabulous to read, full of awkward interactions and childlike teasing. The reader will be relieved here to see Hero loosening up as she extends her boundaries beyond rearing Roni. Now as the pace picks up one feels all the more invested in our main character.
The joy of Hero is that you do get the sense that she is a complex person. The whole book shuns the stereotypes of immigration tales by emboldening each of the characters with a unique identity that is believable. Though some of their struggles might be easily stereotyped by others, here we gather individuals that seem to exist in their own right. Individuals seeking work, individuals moving away from war, individuals working under the radar of the authorities, individuals supporting extended families and many others. On top of this you have glimpses into their personal desires and fears which all in all gives depth to a community all too often overlooked in America. What you gather from Hero at the end is a sense of a personality that encompasses a fractured past, a fractured sense of place and a complex set of relationships. This seemingly simple combination gives Hero the power to exist in the reader’s mind outside the book, it gives her the power to stand up and walk off the page, which is a mean feat on the author’s behalf.
America is Not the Heart is published by Atlantic Books and is available to purchase here.
Elaine Castillo was born in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. America Is Not the Heart is her first novel.
Reviewed by Jessica Gregory
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