Next Year in Havana: A Novel. Chanel Cleeton. Penguin Publishing Group. February 2018. 400 pp. ISBN#: 9780399586682.
This novel spans the lives of a well-to-do family who thrive in and love the Cuba of their past in the 1950s and the Miami where they live as exiles in the present. The Floridian Cubans have recreated their past which they celebrate. But the love they shared as family is actually all that remains of the real world in present day Havana and its outlying neighborhoods. This novel takes the reader deeply through both worlds in a transforming story that should be must reading.
Half of the Perez family fled Cuba in 1967. Elisa Perez’s granddaughter, Marisol, has now returned to Cuba with her late grandmother’s ashes, accompanied with the instructions for Marisol to scatter Elisa’s ashes “where she thinks best” and a surety that Marisol would know where when the moment came.
Marisol meets Luis, a married man to whom she is attracted, who introduces her to the real Cuba where everyone is equal, equally poor, equally oppressed, and equally fearful of being arrested for criticizing the government of Fidel and then Raoul Castro. Multiple shocks fill Marisol and the reader as we realize that we don’t have a clue as to what it’s like to live in a Communist regime. However, that stark reality is juxtaposed with the beauty of Cuba’s shores, flowers, trees and homes and the fierce pride of its people. Luis is a professional history professor who takes Marisol through the historical background of the people who hope for so much but wait for it in silent patience. Others are not so patient and the violence is never far from day-to-day living.
In the past life of Cubans, Elisa, who comes from an aristocratic family, meets and falls in love with a Cuban rebel, a man who believes that Fidel is the answer to becoming free of Battista, the former ruler of Cuba. Elisa struggles fiercely to mesh the spoiled lifestyle she enjoys without thought and the life and death struggle that so many Cubans, including family members, are living to move the country toward what they believe will be a free, democratic society.
The story neither sanctifies nor vilifies the rebels in different generations. Instead the author deftly allows the reader to observe and reflect on the realities of Cuban life, government and freedom movements, forming one’s own opinions which cannot be avoided. This is masterful historical fiction in which one gets to know not only the history of Cuba but the strengths and foibles of very human, passionate people who cherish their Cuba.