In the tiny tourist town of Ciudad de Tres Hermanas, brother and sister Rafa and Rufina are slowly unravelling in the aftermath of their mother’s death. But, although Rosalinda has passed away, she is yet to pass on, making her presence known by banging pots and pans and kicking the walls.
Rufina sees and hears her, but Rafa – Rosalinda’s favourite – does not. And he’s taking her death the hardest, slipping away into a darkness Rufina knows he will not return from. So she offers a wager.
If they can make enough money over the next weekend, Rafa can leave this place. Take the cash, head to the islands where he was at his happiest, and save himself from this despair. And if they can’t? Then Rufina will resign herself to whatever path Rafa chooses – wherever it may lead.
Set over the course of that final weekend, Jamie Figueroa‘s Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer is an exquisite debut, filled with rich imagery and lyrical prose. Figueroa packs plenty into the novel’s modest page count, with characters both tangible and all-but magical bursting off the page. Repeated refrains throughout the text make for a poetry-like feel, and there’s a sharp emotional stab in almost every short chapter.
At the core of this contemporary fable lies a heart wrenching examination of grief and loss, experienced in more forms than expected. Rufina’s anguish goes back further than the loss of her mother, and is only exacerbated by the impending loss of her brother; Rafa’s grief and loneliness is like an open and infectious wound, hurting his sister as much as himself; and the departed Rosalinda fears disappearing as her adult children fall apart. And hovering over it all, a genderless angel, trying to remain impartial and see this one through to the end.
The cutting through of the very real emotions at the heart of Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer with an almost paranormal thread is a wonderful choice. Rosalinda is gifted a presence beyond flashbacks or memories, the siblings have gifts all of their own, and the angel – stomping around in huge boots and banishing Rosalinda’s ghost to the well in the yard – is a fascinating addition.
Figueroa also takes aim at the tourists loitering around Ciudad de Tres Hermanas, and the Explorer – physically absent, but brought to life in Rafa and Rufina’s memories – looms large in this arena. Inserting himself into the family when the siblings are younger, he tries to mould them into a romanticised ideal of their culture. A culture that Figueroa takes care never to reveal. Rosalinda, Rafa, and Rufina might be from anywhere, but the Explorer – a white American – has his vision and he sticks to it.
Alongside the tourist couple that find themselves as captivated by Rufina and Rafa’s poverty as by their town square performance, it’s a cunning commentary both on the way tourism often barely scratches the surface of a place and its people, and on the romanticisation of struggle, poverty, and people of colour.
As time runs out on Rafa and Rufina’s final weekend together, Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer both captivates and devastates. Brimming with elegant, poetic writing, Figueroa has offered us a truly original debut. An absolute must read.