BOOK REVIEW / Big apple cakes and pastries: Dreaming in Cuban - Christina Garcia: Flamingo, pounds 5.99

'HAPPY families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.' Anna Karenina's opening line, as quoted in Christina Garcia's first novel, could not have been better chosen.

Garcia's particular unfortunates are three generations of Cubans, the del Pino family. Dreaming In Cuban is pointedly the women's story; the men of the novel are, by and large, perfunctory and malevolent creatures; rapists, alcoholics, wife beaters and molesters of children. Garcia gives them no voice, but instead catalogues the way they divide family loyalties, leaving Celia the matriarch and her daughters, Lourdes and Felicia, enbittered and spiritually wounded.

The novel opens with Celia's vision of her estranged husband at the moment of his death - a laser-blue apparition walking across a moonlit beach - and this sets the novel's tone of mysticism and romantic imagery. Celia del Pino, torn between an unattainable lover and a neglectful husband, drowns her sorrows in Castro's revolutionary fervour. Felicia looks for solace in black magic, but finds only madness; her sister Lourdes, lured by the 'yanqui' dollar to New York, becomes intoxicated with the spirit of free enterprise, and opens a bakery. It is Lourdes's daughter Pilar who is 'dreaming in Cuban': at night she hears the voice of Celia, the grandmother she can barely remember, and her impression of Cuba is idealised and mysterious.

Cuba itself, with its tempestuous past, is the perfect backdrop for this story of kindred dissolution. Indeed, the plight of the del Pinos might almost be a metaphor for the island's historical dilemma; revolutionary nationalism saddled with the voodoo legacy of slavery, always under the oppressive shadow of the US.

Christina Garcia's writing is sharp and often radiant. The female characters are striking individuals - Pilar's narrative accounts are filled with the vitality and authentic brazen zest of rebellious youth. And Garcia's descriptions - the Manhattan skyline, as 'optimistic as a wedding cake'; a monstrous 30s car 'as big and black as a Sunday night church' - have an easy wit and brevity.

What's more, despite the predominant sense of melancholy there's a good deal of mordant humour here. In one comical and touching episode Pilar decorates her mother's bakery with a 'Punk' portrait of the Statue of Liberty. Meanwhile Lourdes herself, a virulent anti-communist, tries to tempt her mother Celia away from Cuba by sending her photographs of rich and glistening pastries; the last, or perhaps the first word in capitalist opulence.

Even some of the unpleasant fates meted out to husbands and lovers - tumbling from a rollercoaster or sizzling in a grease fire - have a sense of surreal comedy about them; though if the story of the del Pino women is indeed a metaphor for Cuba's, then the final impression is of a people drifting in a sea of thwarted hopes.

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