Nelly Rosario’s Song of the Water Saints is an exuberant, if flawed, debut by a writer with a sweeping lyrical gift. Set in the Dominican Republic, this novel follows four generations of women—Graciela, Mercedes, Amalfi, and Leila—through their frustrated desires, confused loyalties, and search for true love.
The story begins with Graciela, who is “immortalized” in an erotically charged photograph with her lover. Though we get brief mentions of the photo again, Rosario never quite fulfills the promise of notoriety implied in those first few pages. Graciela’s wretched life in the 1920s D.R. takes her through a whorehouse, a convent, two marriages, a one-night stand with a syphilitic vegetarian zealot, and an ambivalent motherhood. She dreams of travel and paradise while deciphering clouds. But Rosario’s wild poetry leaves Graciela murky, often aimless.
By the time the novel ends in turn-of-the-century New York with Graciela’s great-granddaughter, Leila, the chapters are skipping generations. At times, Rosario seems to be at war between her intention and creation: She calls Casimiro, Graciela’s second husband, a lazy kleptomaniac. Then she reveals him to be a sensitive man, more of a loving parent to Graciela’s daughter than Graciela. Like the erotic photo, Casimiro’s kleptomania promises complication or revelation, but fizzles before it can acquire meaning.
Though magic plays a role in the culture of the story through fortune-tellers, mystical signs, and the title’s enigmatic water saints, Rosario remains rooted in reality. There are no flights into other, more perfect or terrifying realms. She’s done her homework, too: The clear background history of the D.R. illuminates the characters’ angst and paranoia. When Mercedes worries about being overheard by the dictator Trujillo, she’s not concerned with just listening devices. Trujillo used his people’s faith and superstition to his advantage, manipulating their iconography and beliefs to appear omnipotent. “Daily speech was reduced to whispers to keep the skies from shattering, as the most trivial of exchanges could cause pieces of heaven to flake off and lose divinity,” writes Rosario. Rosario, a writer with a poet’s ear and a daring hand, unfortunately has a penchant for dead ends. A little more follow-through could have made this a great debut.