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Having grown up in the care of her grandfather in Miami after being taken from the island as a young child, the un-named central character of "Loving Che" receives a box of letters and news clippings from an anonymous sender. She has already made one visit to Havana to try to trace the mother who was left behind but wasn't able to find her but the shocking information contained in the letter, relating to the identity of her father, persuades her to head back to Cuba to try again. She has grown up with the one-sided view of Cuba perpetuated by the exiles of Florida but finds that the truth is quite different as her quest to find her mother introduces her to Havana's thriving artistic community. Refusing to accept that the claims of the letters are unlikely, she resolves to find out for herself whether the infamous El Che really was her father.
The short first and third sections of this novel are told by this young woman, a Cuban exile who grew with her grandfather who rarely spoke of the girl's mother and even then only when pressed. The longer middle section is told through the writing of the woman's mother, Theresa and this section is the real substance of the novel. She begins her story before the revolution which I thought at first was unnecessary as I don't think it enlightened the reader with anything pertinent to her character; however, what this achieves is to set the scene so that it is easier to appreciate the marked change in everyday life after the revolution. The writing in this middle section is wonderful; it really captured the essence of Havana such as the thrill of walking along the Malecon and the effect of the elements on the buildings that face the sea. It brilliantly depicted the middle class area of Vedado with its large houses with stylish patios and it conjured up evocative images of the Old Town and the stifling heat of apartments in those crumbling blocks. I was taken back to my own trip to Havana and what I found particularly striking was the economy of language used to create such authentic imagery.
At first I was a little confused as this part of the narration appears to jump around a bit until Theresa becomes focused on the real heart of her story. The Cuban revolution is a subject I find fascinating and I have read widely on it yet I did find that there were some events in this story that weren't very well explained. The actual revolution itself isn't really described nor would it be relevant to the story; Theresa is relating the story to her daughter who will know only too well the major events of the revolution. However, I would say that a little background knowledge on the part of the reader makes the first part of Theresa's narration easier to absorb. Theresa isn't a very politicised person but there are some interesting elements of her narration that remind the reader of the setting and a rather striking motif around the window of a Havana department store that sums up pretty well how the revolution affects Theresa's life.
The romantic scenes were well written and really quite erotic without being explicit. There is something, however, unsettling about the depiction of El Che as this intensely sexual being no doubt driven by the power of iconography which has made successive generations look upon him as "theirs". Perhaps this comes from the voyeuristic sensation of seeing someone else bond with Che as countless young women and men may have fantasized about. There is certainly a contrast within the story as to how different characters react to the idea that El Che could be this woman's father and I would imagine that these reactions are probably reflected in the way readers might react to this novel. This is no easy going romance, there is some skillfully inserted political thought nicely slotted into the story too and although it could not be described as coming from a neutral standpoint it certainly wasn't as one-sided as I had been expecting. However, readers who are familiar with Che Guevara's works will recognize some of his writing used in the conversations he has with Theresa and some of this dialogue does relate to the commonly cited offences people would charge El Che with.
My main criticism of the novel was the formulaic way in which the story is told. Tracing one's family tree is such as popular pastime these days and is a much easier undertaking thanks to the internet. It seems that writers of historical fiction have welcomed this trend with open arms and there have been a plethora of novels in which, usually, a young woman is prompted by a chance find to trace her roots. I find it quite a lazy way to tell a story and wonder if there might have been some more original way to tell this one. That said, this is a pleasing novel with some fine writing and an interesting idea at its heart.
Ana Menendez was not an author I was familiar with but I have already ordered more of her novels to read on the strength of "Loving Che". It's a short read but one that packs a lot into it's 240 pages and certainly gets you wondering "What if?"