By Allyson Vaughan
The Veins of the Ocean by Patricia Engel is a powerful novel of guilt, redemption, love, and connection. The story begins with a powerful image, a baby being hurled off a bridge by its father. A baby that would survive and grow up to make the same mistake his father made. When Reina Castillo’s brother throws his girlfriend’s daughter off the same bridge, this time with fatal consequences, Reina is the only one visits her brother in prison. Pushed by a private guilt of her own, she sacrifices all of her time to visit him and when she isn’t she’s working at a nail salon. Reina gives herself over to her brother’s care with a martyr like zeal, but when her brother’s death releases her Reina decides to disappear. And disappear she does, feeling that she doesn’t deserve the normalcy others have after what her brother did.
But Reina’s self-inflicted exile brings about one of the most powerful themes in the whole novel. Redemption. Reina moves to a small island and takes a job at a nail salon in a resort. Keeping to herself, Reine attempts a quiet existence void of any interaction beyond what is required. Punishing herself with the same level of solitary confinement her brother endured in prison, Reina does not expect to make any friends on this island. Until she mets Nesto, a refugee from Cuba living in solitude away from the family he hopes to one day bring to America. The two find themselves in a friendship, clashing together like the waves and sand, that will keep them both buoyed to life as they heal and reconcile their mistakes and losses. Engel’s writing is terrifyingly lyrical, pulling the reader along like the gentle waves of the shore. The imagery of the sea, and how it connects with both Nesto and Reina’s spirits and the almost baptism like quality of diving into the ocean, which both characters embrace the art of, brings together the harsh realities of loss and pain with the romantic, sublime quality of nature.
Engel’s novel never sways too far to the sublime or the bluntness of reality. She exposes Reina’s grief in small ways, dealing with the horrifying truth of what her brother did and her role in it in a way that is stripped down of sentimentality, so that all that is left is the exposed, raw grief. But to soften the horrors Reina faces, Engel’s writing style elevates her prose from simplistic to intricate. The lulling of the rhythm of her words, the stark contrasts she compares Nesto and Reina’s stories with at the same time bring about their similarities. The novel is a masterful work that dives as deep into the nature of guilt and shame as it does the ocean. Reina takes on a guilt that is not all hers to have. The story does reveal she had some hand in the child’s death, but an unintentional one. And so her guilt, however grounded, still turns into a mountain as she sees her brother’s decisions as her own. Family is blood, and their blood is the same to Reina. Though she did not murder the child, Reina will not forgive herself its loss.
The Veins of the Ocean is a force of nature in itself, and probably in this writer’s opinion one of the best works to come out this year. The summer might be edging closer and closer to the end, but this book will leave you in a perpetual summer with its bright, burning prose and the ache of familiarity as you read Reina and Nesto’s journey of guilt,redemption, love, and friendship.