Tropical baroque and roll

Alberto Manguel shares his passion for a perfect summer's read: The Aguero Sisters by Cristina Garca, Picador, pounds 15.99

John Ruskin would not have been happy in the tropics: he didn't approve of Nature having human passions. "The state of mind that attributes to it those characters of a living creature is one in which the reason is unhinged by grief. All violent feelings have the same effect." Well, maybe in England. But in Cuba (or in the New Cuba aka Miami) things are different. The weather is vengeful, the earth greedy, the fruit erotic, the birds ominous, the water full of dangerous memories. To survive, one must observe these emotions and learn from them. Ruskin wouldn't have lasted a day.

In Cristina Garca's second novel, two sisters, one in Miami and one in Cuba, learn through trial and error to read Nature's changing moods. Reina, the Cuban, an electrician trained by the Revolucion, is adept at taming electrical power, but that does not prevent her from becoming its victim. While attempting to lift electric pumps from the jungle mud, she is felled by a bolt of lightning that leaves her radiant with sensual heat and in need of skin grafts. Constancia, in her Florida exile, can command from flowers and fruits the essences needed for her celebrated beauty concoctions, but she will not heed to Goddess of Nature, Oshun (who in Christian lands is also the Virgin Mary) and must eventually make amends for her stubbornness. Hoping that together they may begin to make sense of their disjointed lives, Reina travels to Miami to live with her sister, from whom she was separated in childhood.

To understand the will of Nature, the sisters must understand themselves. Nature's emotions (Ruskin would have had a fit) are reflected in the sisters as in two dark mirrors, and also in those who surround them: their parents, whose love ended in murder and suicide; their grandfather from distant Spain; their inefficient husbands and lovers; their difficult daughters who must repeat their mothers' mistakes until the chain is broken.

Half adventure story and half romantic thriller, The Aguero Sisters is packed with clues to the sisters' identity: in the past, the father's attraction to rare, or vanished species, and the mother's uncanny ability to discover lost worlds; in the present, Reina's sexual avidity which her own daughter inherits, and Constancia's appropriation of her mother's features until she can no longer recognise herself. "Life is in the mirror," runs a line of verse her father once taught Reina, "and you are the original death." The sisters' quest, in the end, is no more than the search for their own mortality.

In 16th-century Spain, the baroque artists of the Counter-Reformation devised a clever method for making sense of the divine mystery and yet allowing it to remain secret. They surrounded a kernel of meaning with layers of volutes and flourishes, so that its existence could only be guessed at from its outer skin. Cristina Garca (who writes in English) has used this device to great effect in this formidable and enthralling novel. Both Cuban realities - life on the island under Castro, and exile and wishful thinking in Miami - are utterly convincing and ultimately mysterious. The sisters' rich saga takes place simultaneously in the daily Cuban world of home cooking, Castro's restrictions and Miami's politics of exile, as well as in the immanent world of gods older than history - gods of earth and water whom most of us have chosen to forget.

From the first luscious pages describing a duck hunt in Cuba to the epilogue (which retells the hunt, this time charged with our knowledge of that "thin, permanent season", the future), The Aguero Sisters cannot be put down. Sexy, pungent as a mango, wildly romantic, redolent of the tropics, it is a perfect summer's read - even in the sober land of Ruskin.

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