Miracles and wonders

THE AGERO SISTERS by Cristina Garca, Picador pounds 15.99
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It is all very well for jaded European readers to claim that magic realism has delighted us long enough, but some people's world view just doesn't come without special effects. Cristina Garca's boisterous panorama of Cuba past and present features at least two standard components of magic realism: larger-than-life characters and dramatic portents. And to get the crystal ball rolling, the Aguero patriarch's placenta is snatched by an ill-omened siguapa stygian owl who spatters his mother's blood over the first President of the Cuban Republic.

In the present, one Aguero sister, Reina, is a famously daring six-foot electrician who is happiest with a 70-pound toolbox by her side, even when she is making love - which is often. Reina is struck by lightning while at work up a mahogany tree, where she has been flung by an earthquake. Undaunted, if now patchworked with skin grafts donated by friends and family to heal her lightning burns, Reina quits Cuba for Miami to be reunited with her sister Constancia for the first time in 33 years.

The more feminine Constancia is developing her own range of "Cuban" beauty potions in Miami which is turning big bucks. Everything is bottled in royal blue with their mama's picture on the label. It is the face Constancia now sees when she looks in the mirror - and with some alarm, because this is not just a vague similarity, but a sudden, identical likeness to the mother who banished her from the family circle as a toddler. Both sisters know there is a terrible secret to uncover about their mother's death on a duck-hunting expedition in the Zapata Swamp.

To demonstrate the male version of Cuban exile, Garca gives us Constancia's husband Heberto, erstwhile purveyor of cigars in Manhattan, has joined an underground commando-group that rehearses in the Everglades for one last ultimate takeover of Cuba. Constancia is so unimpressed by this project that she has hidden Heberto's razor, shrunk his underwear and embroidered epithets about vaingloriousness onto his socks.

If Garca is a writer who clearly enjoys a laugh over eccentric detail in the magic realist mode, she also provides impressively economical flashes of insight into a hundred years of the particular revolutionary experience of Cuba and its people.

The Aguero sisters' grandfather was a lector who read Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo aloud to the hand-rollers of the opulent El Cid Cigar Manufacturers at the turn of the century. His son - the sisters' father, Ignacio Aguero - became a renowned scientist entirely through field research, because the right-wing General Gerardo Machado closed down Cuban universities in the early 1930s. The great love of Reina's life, and father of her daughter, was a hero of Castro's revolution. Heberto's father and brother fought at the Bay of Pigs until JFK lost his nerve and pulled his promised air support. And now Heberto swells with pride in the 1990s with the thought of another invasion.

Garca peppers her fact with fancy in the most palatable way and as her voracious cast demand. This is lively storytelling and robust characterisation of a very high order, coming out of a cultural tradition that does not conjure up miracles and magic just for literary effect, but because it considers them as requisites for everyday living.