It was as if we’d reached the minimum critical point of a mathematical curve. Imagine a parabola. Zero point down, at the bottom of an abyss. That’s how low we sank.
The year is 1993. Cuba is at the height of the Special Period, a widespread economic crisis following the collapse of the Soviet bloc.
For Julia, a mathematics lecturer who hates teaching, Havana is at Year Zero: the lowest possible point, going nowhere. Desperate to seize control of her life, Julia teams up with her colleague and former lover, Euclid, to seek out a document that proves the telephone was invented by Antonio Meucci in Havana, convinced it is the answer to secure their reputations and give Cuba a purpose once more.
From this point zero, Julia sets out on an investigation to befriend two men who could help lead to the document’s whereabouts, and must pick apart a tangled mystery of sex, family legacies and the intricacies of how people find ways to survive in a country at its lowest ebb.
I have been eyeing up the books from Charco Press for a while now, intrigued by their enticing collection of Latin American literature and – let’s be honest – their stunning covers. So I jumped at the chance to read and review my first Charco title. Huge thanks to Carolina for sending me a copy of Havana Year Zero in exchange for an honest review. I can officially declare myself a fan.
The central premise of the book reminded me of Vigdis Hjorth’s wonderful novel Long Live The Post Horn! (about the Norwegian postal service!) in that it sounds fairly mundane on paper. Searching for a missing document to prove that the telephone was invented in Cuba hardly seems like the stuff of gripping fiction; but, like Hjorth’s book, the plot is utterly transformed by the skill of the author, and I was surprised by how totally and utterly invested I became in unravelling the mystery of the Meucci document. The story twists and turns and grows more intricate by the page; it is impossible to know who is telling the truth, so layered are the motives of everyone involved, and I was practically giddy with excitement every time another screwball development knocked the story sideways.
The protagonist and narrator, who gives us the false name ‘Julia’, is brilliant. Rarely have I enjoyed following a character as much as I did the shrewd, calculating, self-interested and yet hilarious, honest, forthright narrator of Havana Year Zero. She is a genius creation – neither affable nor odious; she is intelligent, complicated, funny, and utterly engaging. Honestly, I am going to miss her. The other characters, too, are expertly drawn, and our perspective is so closely aligned with Julia’s that they are as slippery and hard to pin down to the reader as they are to the narrator. The shifting allegiances and changing dynamics among the central characters are an absolute joy to observe. This is really clever, fun storytelling.
And yet, as well as the delicious mix of mathematical precision and absurd narrative twists, there is also a poignant social and historical commentary in this novel. Havana in 1993 is a place of deprivation, of food and electricity shortages, of a lack of hope verging on despair. Against this backdrop, the fixation on the Meucci document becomes something more profound: a way of reclaiming an identity to be proud of, a way to start forging a new, better future. The significance of the characters’ actions in terms of where they are in history adds another layer to this already intricate book, and I was swept along by Suárez’s vivid descriptions of the city.
I loved this book: it has the perfect combination of humour and poignancy. Suárez takes a point in time and spins a damn good story around it, precise and intricate as a spiderweb. It is a beautifully crafted and hugely enjoyable novel, and I highly recommend it.