Don’t be fooled by Mia Alvar’s smooth, languid, slow-paced prose, for behind it hides sharp observations of human nature and our capacity for cruelty. As she writes in one of the stories from her debut collection, In the Country, “the quietest, most docile worker could, behind her apron or her uniform, be sharpening her blade.” While Alvar writes in subtle, descriptive language about Filipino characters, their jobs, and the places they live, she’s setting the reader up for jarring plot twists and shattering surprises that leave us questioning everything she’s previously written about her characters. These are rich, meaty, fulfilling stories in which everyone’s hiding something—from extramarital affairs to murder.
At the heart of these secrets, and of many of these stories, is cruelty in its multitudinous forms. As a result, Alvar demonstrates the havoc that humans—from resentful housemaids to corrupt politicians—can wreak.
In “The Miracle Worker,” Sally Riva has a “medical kind of appetite for staring at disorders, at things gone gruesomely wrong in the body.” She takes care of a child named Aroush in whose physical disfigurement Alvar spares no detail. Sally describes how Aroush’s “head swelled out dramatically at the forehead and crown, like a lightbulb. Faint brown smudges the size of thumbprints dotted her face. Along the left side of her neck grew a pebbly mass of tumors.” Sally fails to tell the mother the truth about her daughter’s predicament—that there’s little hope. The cruelty of chance, genetics, and her body has condemned the girl to a life in which she’ll never be able to speak. At best, she’ll eventually learn how “to hold objects, to communicate without words, to recognize sounds, even shapes.” Through working with Aroush, Sally discovers that her student has suffered some past trauma at the hands of another human, though it takes a while for Sally (and the reader) to piece together exactly what happened. The levels of cruelty in this story are manifold. Nature plays a nasty trick on the disfigured girl. Her mother’s life is forever burdened by her daughter’s needs. Sally is dishonest with the mother about the possibilities for the girl’s improvement. Finally, and most insidious, is the character who has harmed Aroush in the past.
“The Virgin of Monte Ramon” works in a set-up similar to that of “The Miracle Worker.” Illness and the betrayal of the human body feature strongly in the story. The protagonist, Danny, copes with a birth defect that has left him without functional legs. He suffers the taunts of unsympathetic schoolchildren. Eventually, he befriends Annelise, a classmate ostracized for her impoverished background and uncommonly painful menstrual periods that keep her out of school for days at a time. It’s painful to read about children’s capacity for nastiness and the limited support that Danny and Annelise receive from the adults in their lives. Their only solace is their friendship. In the end, there’s something of a silver lining—hardship, it appears, can also lead to powerful friendships and lasting bonds. Nevertheless, Danny and Annelise are forever scarred by their physical impediments.
And it gets worse as the collection progresses. In the title story, a novella-length work, a dictatorial regime in the Philippines (based on Ferdinand Marcos’s government) commits murder and deems it a suicide, throws political dissidents into jail, and kidnaps a rebellious journalist’s young son. If “The Miracle Worker” and “The Virgin of Monte Ramon” are about devastation on a small scale and the tragedies of everyday life, “In the Country” works on a macro level, exposing the widespread horrors that powerful world leaders can commit. The macro and the micro work together in “Esmeralda”, a story about 9/11, told through the eyes of a Filipina woman who cleans one of the World Trade Centers. Hatred and terrorism destroy thousands of people and leave a city and ruin, and Alvar’s retelling of the tragedy captures one woman’s loss. Here disaster on a grand scale is told through an individual’s personal heartbreak.
Though darkness pervades many of these stories and the capacity for sinister actions lurks in even the most unexpected of characters, there’s also hope to be found. In “The Miracle Worker,” Alvar gives us Sally’s love for Aroush, which is a selfless dedication to the child despite her hopeless situation. In “The Kontrabida,” a husband’s death allows some peace for the wife he long abused—an opportunity for her to finally escape a life of oppression and subservience. In “A Contract Overseas,” the main character finds hope in writing. Through fiction, she creates her own worlds in which tragedies have been undone and the dead are given new life.
Alvar similarly wields her fiction as a tool to give voice to those who have witnessed and suffered at the hands of fate and human cruelty. Through male and female voices, models and nurses, past and present, Alvar speaks on behalf of a Filipino community, dispersed throughout the world. In doing so, Alvar brings to light the individual experience, giving a human face to struggles large and small. Despite the darkness, Alvar’s prose satisfies. It’s the author’s narrative ability—her power to surprise and weave thoughtful, intricate stories—that keeps you reading. Her writing both memorializes and celebrates the lives of anyone who has ever suffered—that is to say, of us all.