Retab­los: Sto­ries from a Life Lived along the Bor­der

Oc­tavio So­lis

Foreword Reviews - - Reviews Adult Nonfiction -

City Lights Pub­lish­ers (OC­TO­BER) Soft­cover $15.95 (176pp), 978-0-87286-786-4

The sto­ries that make up Oc­tavio So­lis’s Retab­los are as taut, riv­et­ing, and im­mer­sive as the sun­rise in a red rock desert. Be fore­warned—they’re ad­dic­tive.

Retab­los are brightly painted scenes on flat­tened pieces of metal de­pict­ing per­sonal crises whose pos­i­tive out­comes were achieved through divine in­ter­ven­tion. The fifty pieces of this col­lec­tion are prose retab­los—mem­o­ries of grow­ing up Mex­i­can-amer­i­can in the bor­der­lands of El Paso, Texas.

Most pieces re­volve around sin­gle scenes or in­ci­dents, re­ly­ing on spare but pre­cisely cho­sen de­tails and emo­tional grace notes to con­vey a larger, deeper story. Ac­com­pa­ny­ing his mother on re­peated drives to a mid­dle-class neigh­bor­hood of small, neat houses with trimmed lawns, the nar­ra­tor rec­og­nizes his mother’s un­ex­pressed yearn­ing for some­thing bet­ter, and her guilt over want­ing it—yearn­ings re­flected in the nar­ra­tor’s own “less brown” vi­sion of him­self in such a house.

A story about steal­ing pomegranates from a neigh­bor’s gar­den is about a child’s ca­pac­ity for harsh self-punishment. Less in­tense sce­nar­ios in­clude one about band­leader Herb Alpert be­ing a “Mex­i­can” role model de­spite his Ukraini­an­ro­ma­nian de­scent.

Writ­ing is orig­i­nal and laser-sharp, alive with ad­jec­tives that star­tle and im­ages that linger. En­coun­ter­ing a river-soaked girl who’s just crossed the bor­der, the nar­ra­tor notes the “fugi­tive dull­ness” of her face, and the “an­i­mal lurch” of her body as she turns to flee from him.

All this is de­liv­ered in a deftly crafted voice that’s dis­tinc­tive yet ut­terly nat­u­ral. As the nar­ra­tor pro­gresses from a boy to a young adult, the voice sub­tly ma­tures.

The slow ac­cre­tion of in­ci­dents, voices, and de­tails cre­ates a co­her­ent and un­der­stand­able— if un­fa­mil­iar—world, like sharp shards of glass re­solv­ing into a mo­saic that’s some­times wrench­ing, some­times hu­mor­ous, and al­ways com­pelling. SUSAN WAGGONER

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