Reviewed by Amy Gruzesky
Set in the 18th-century, along the Caribbean coast, readers are introduced to the story by the author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez himself, who in 1949 was given an assignment by his editor to cover the emptying of burial crypts at an old convent.
There, the corpse of a young girl with flowing red hair is found — bringing back the memory of a legend Garcia Marquez’s grandmother had told him about of a 12-year-old marquise with flowing red hair, known for miracles she performed. That girl is Sierva Maria de Todos los Angeles, the main character in this story.
Born to a mother that hated her from the moment she was born and a father who spent most of his daughter’s young life telling himself he loved her, until he had to admit he did not, it is obvious from the start that Sierva Maria would not have a happy childhood.
Ignored by her mother, the alcoholic and drug addled wife of the Marquis de Casalduero, Sierva spends most of her time with the slaves that work on her parents’ estate, learning their languages, their customs, and their songs. She dresses them, does chores with them, and even eats and sleeps with them.
Days before her twelfth birthday, she is at the market with one of these slaves, when she, along with several others at the market that day, is bitten by a dog that is later discovered to have had rabies; one of its other victims has died, while another is showing signs of the disease.
Sierva goes three months without exhibiting signs of rabies but does suffer from a fever. In a show of alarm, and to prevent her from coming down with the deadly disease, her father, who now realizes he does love the girl, brings a slew of healers to his home to do what they can to try to save her.
What they succeed in doing is giving her so many bizarre and questionable treatments that they induce a variety of symptoms in the girl that lead those around her to believe she is now possessed by demonic forces. She is sent to a convent in an attempt to exorcise her of those demons and hopefully save the girl. It is here where she meets Father Cayetano Delaura.
During their first meeting, Delaura finds himself intrigued by the young girl, whom he now doubts is possessed, and in short order, falls madly in love with her; and she, eventually with him. It is a forbidden love and one that will not go well.
It is at this point that the most engaging parts of the story really take off, as the first half of the book is spent outlining the characters and their history, as well as describing the houses and places where these people live. However, the writing draws you in and its easy flow makes this a quick read that can easily be finished in one sitting.
Be forewarned: this story is a bit unsettling on many fronts — from the treatment of Sierva by her parents during her early childhood years, to her being held captive in a convent where an adult priest finds himself in love with the young girl of twelve. Also, the magical realism elements in this book ask the reader to accept many things that defy logical thought.
For me, the hardest part of the story to accept was that a priest in his thirties would become so enthralled with such a young girl. However, the author portrays Delaura and the evolution of his feelings in such a way, that I eventually found myself rooting for these two, as they both end up fighting demons — from internal and external sources.
This book is dark and upsetting, (so not a fell-good read or happy-ending love story) but also compelling and thought-provoking, and one that I continue to think about, which is why I would consider it a good read. Although, I recommend reading it in a short period of time, as I think it is more impactful that way, as all the characters and forces at play in this story stay fresh in your mind, and allow you to mull over what happens to these two doomed individuals on several different levels — moral, romantic, logical and personal.