Days of Awe is about a youthful protagonist getting in touch with her immigrant heritage and family history—a story line full of sincere intentions and messages of personal growth, familiar from countless young-adult novels. The book centers on Alejandra, a translator born in Cuba on the first day of the revolution and raised in America, as she struggles to define herself. “Until I open my mouth and jabber or poke my tongue in some unholy tangle into another’s mouth,” she says of being frequently mistaken for Caucasian, “until somebody gets close enough to taste the bittersweet traces of Havana on my blue-veined skin, I’m this blank space, unconnected to history, bloodless.” She returns to Cuba for a series of visits and tries to reconcile her double national and racial identities.
In fact, Alejandra has two other double identities as well: She is Catholic and Jewish (many Cuban Jews throughout history officially converted to Christianity but continued to worship in private), and she is bisexual. However, since she’s not religious and neither she nor her family experiences the tiniest moment of conflict over her sex life, neither of these parallel themes carries much emotional force.
Religious questions don’t resonate much for the heroine, but they do for her father, and Obejas spends a significant part of the novel tracing the persecution of Spanish-speaking Jews from the beginning of the Inquisition 500 years ago to the 20th-century travails of Alejandra’s immediate family. It’s a worthy project, and the novel is larger in scope than Obejas’s previous two books (Memory Mambo and We Came All the Way From Cuba So You Could Dress Like This?), but much of it feels like a history lesson, partly because Alejandra cares only so she can understand her father better, and partly because of the dry, factual language in which it is rendered: “The persecution by the Inquisition—which later extended to the colonies in the New World and remained active until 1834—may have been an assault on their very souls, but the Sephardim endured, accommodating each new demand, each new violation.”
Obejas plays freely with chronology, hopping from Alejandra’s father’s childhood to his birth, to her first visit to Cuba, to a later visit, to a time before she went to Cuba, and so on. The feeling is dizzying, since there are new characters in every time period and they’re hard to keep track of, but it’s not unpleasant—just dreamily disjointed, like a collection of overlapping photographs that together give an impression of something larger.
The problem is that all this jumping around makes it hard to cling to Alejandra, hard to feel the weight of her desire to understand Cuba. And because she’s a “blank space,” she’s difficult to care about. “I know everything and nothing at all,” she says, “and I am overwhelmed, unable to look myself in the eye, struggling to swallow and to breathe, thinking always: Like the emperor, I have no clothes, no clothes.”
In the last third of the book, when most of the historical material has been covered, some genuinely intriguing conflicts surface, though they don’t resolve. Obejas seems to be aiming at a delicate depiction of the unknowable nature of humanity, rather than at catharsis, crisis, or anything particularly passionate. For example, Alejandra has been exchanging letters with Orlando, a married Cuban man she once had sex with, and he writes to her: “My wife is not my wife. She is someone else’s wife . . . She’s my sister, really, and we lived in our father’s house. I know you thought she was my wife—everyone did—even we did—we were confused, everyone was confused. . . . Yes, it’s true, we were married for years, and there are even pictures to prove it . . . ” He could be confessing to incest, or just to the death of love in the marriage. Alejandra neither wonders nor pursues the truth.
Later, she confronts the man because she knows he’s been having sex with a 14-year-old girl. He admits the affair, saying the girl wanted it. Alejandra then loses interest in helping the girl, whom she previously saw as unmercifully exploited. Eventually, she does go visit her, and the two do some household chores together. That’s it.
I think some readers will find this book truthful and beautiful. They will find Alejandra’s journey to Cuba resonant on both cultural and personal levels, and they will find what I am calling a lack of resolution to be an honest depiction of human ambiguity. Me, I like story, and characters full of peculiarities and given to passionate actions, so I found the whole experience rather dull.