I bring you a book that although it might be an acquired taste, I enjoyed immensely.
One Year of Ugly by Caroline Mackenzie
‘Deliciously dark’ EMMA JANE UNSWORTH
‘Funny and important’ LAURA JANE WILLIAMS
It was Aunt Celia who got us into the whole mess. The entire Palacios family thrust smack into the middle of a crime ring.
Meet Yola Palacios.
Having escaped crumbling, socialist Venezuela, Yola and her family are settling into their peaceful new life in Trinidad.
But when her beloved Aunt Celia dies, the family once again find their lives turned upside down. For Celia had been keeping a very big secret – the Palacios are seriously in debt to a local criminal called Ugly, and without the funds to pay him off, they must do his bidding until the debt is cleared. So far, so ugly.
In the midst of the turmoil appears Román – Ugly’s distractingly gorgeous right-hand man. And although she knows it’s foolish, not to mention dangerous, Yola just can’t help but give in to the attraction. Could this wildly inappropriate (and very messy) romance be the perfect antidote?
Told with wry humour and irresistible wit, ONE YEAR OF UGLY is devastatingly funny, blisteringly fresh story of family, first love, and finding home.
About the author:
Hello there and welcome to my author page! This being my first rodeo as a published author, I’m thrilled to even be able to write that sentence. I suppose that’s the most important thing to know about me – I’m a first timer in the daunting world of publishing, and my debut novel ONE YEAR OF UGLY, out May (UK) and July (US) 2020, is the book that made that happen.
What else is there to know about me? I’m a French Creole (née de Verteuil) born and raised in Trinidad. I studied abroad for five years, first in France then in the UK, earning a BA in French and Spanish studies and an MSc in specialised translation. I’m now back living in Trinidad with my family and a veritable menagerie of tropical animals too bizarre to get into here.
As a new(ish) mum, I’m still navigating the demands of motherhood to figure out my new writing routine, but I’ve managed to get back to writing consistently every day, which is nothing short of a triumph. Novel #2 is consequently well underway.
To wrap up with a few fun facts:
- The illicit stripclub setting in ONE YEAR OF UGLY was inspired by the two + years I spent waitressing/hostessing at a Spearmint Rhino during my undergrad studies in Brighton. You could call me a connoisseur of the stripclub industry.
- I am a lifelong francophile and fantasise about moving to Martinique one day.
- Reality TV is my most shameful yet effective means of unwinding. Nothing says ‘switch off your brain and rock back’ like a Bravo or MTV original series.
Follow me here and on Goodreads for updates on ONE YEAR OF UGLY’s upcoming release and to check out what books (and bad TV shows) I’m loving these days.
Thanks to the Borough Press (Harper Collins UK) and NetGalley for providing me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.
This is a debut novel, and what a debut! Although I hadn’t heard of the author before, I was thrilled when I realised that we had a few things in common (I’ve also worked as a translator, and we’re both alumnae of Sussex University. Go Sussex!), and I am sure this will not be the last novel I read by Mackenzie.
This novel touches on many things, and although it does it with wit and humour (at times a very sharp and quite dark sense of humour), the themes it delves in are quite serious. Illegal immigrants (in this case, Venezuelans in Trinidad) that try to settle into their new life, but whose already uncertain and danger-ridden existence becomes more complicated when they are blackmailed into doing all kind of other illegal things to settle the debt a member of their family, Aunt Celia, left unpaid upon her sudden death. The Palacios, an extended but close family, with their traditions, their unique personalities, their traditions from home and from their adopted land, their parties and meals together, with their quirks and their not-quite-upstanding members, are suddenly thrown into the hands of the criminal underworld, and their lives become even more dangerous. There is blackmail, housing other illegal immigrants, being tracked and followed, having to work all hours to keep their non-paying guests, being threatened and pushed around, and some of their members are even driven out of their minds by the pressure. To all these events (and more that I’m keeping quiet), we have to add life as usual for this family, and that includes secret love-children, a young girl’s pregnancy, dangerous love affairs, strong women (some with a flair for drama), weak-willed men, heavy drinking, unfaithful husbands, grief and mourning, mental illness, trying to fit into a completely different place and being the object of prejudice and suspicion. The author explains her reasons for choosing to write a comedy in her note at the end, and they make perfect sense to me. First, because, as she says, some people might resist reading another book that deals in some of these very serious topics if they are presented in a straightforward manner, but a comedy might reach those readers, and also because comedy and humour are great weapons to deal with dark situations and to endure and keep hope alive when things are tough. The author does a great job, both in dealing with the illegal immigration angle and also in creating a family that we love (or at times, love to hate).
There are many characters, some pretty major (not all the members of the family have important roles, but we do get to know them fairly well by the end of the novel, although there are plenty of surprises, and I’m not only talking about Aunt Milagros here), and others that only pass-by, like some of the illegal immigrants they are forced to house through the year, and in many cases, they are depicted like a cartoonist would do, exaggerating some traits for comedic purposes, but affectionately. Yola, the main protagonist, who narrates the story in the first-person, is intelligent, witty, hard-working, and although she might not see eye-to-eye with all the members of her family, she loves them fiercely and would do anything for all of them, even for the new arrivals that she’s not so keen on. Aunt Celia, who has died just before the story starts, is also very present in the novel, as she had been writing her biography/memoir, and the manuscript is passed on to Yola, who is also a writer and translator, and whom the majority of the members of the family think of as the most suited to follow in Aunt Celia’s steps (and become the family’s official bitch). Celia’s book is priceless, and we get to hear her voice through Yola’s reading. Then we have Ugly, who although doesn’t turn up often, his few appearances are very memorable. And Román, the romantic hero (yes, I know, the name is self-explanatory), who at first appears more of an antihero, but there is more to him than his gorgeous looks, and, well, let’s say the romance side of the story is bound to satisfy most readers keen on the genre. I liked Yola, and although some of her actions seemed pretty unreasonable and inconsistent, she is fully aware of it. As we’re inside her head, it’s easy to empathise, especially because she’s put in pretty impossible situations at times, and it’s difficult to imagine what else she could do. I also liked most of the members of her family, and yes, Aunt Celia and Aunt Milagros truly shine through. The female characters are more memorable than the males (other than Román and Ugly), but they are also familiar, and it’s likely that most readers would identify people they know who share characteristics with them. As is the case in all families, you might have your favourites, but there’s so much history shared that you feel for them. Yes, I’ll miss the Palacios.
The writing is sharp, witty, and eminently quotable. It flows well and although I know many readers don’t like first-person narratives, I enjoyed this one, and also the fragments from Aunt Celia’s memoirs. There are words and expressions in Spanish (I’m not from Venezuela, but the Spanish terms are well-written, and the research has paid up), but they do not impede the understanding of the text, and rather add to the atmosphere and the realism of the piece. I have highlighted the text extensively, but I’ll try to share a few examples of the writing. As usual, I’d recommend prospective readers to check a sample first, to see if it suits their taste. (Some reviewers did not like the humorous tone when dealing with such serious matters, but I felt that was one of the strong points of the novel).
“Her wit was as lethal as a syringe of cyanide.”
“Only a real political genius like him, with his communist sympathies despite everything we’d been through in Caracas, would name his kid after Fidel Castro.”
“Our immigrant story is as classic and unchanging as any Hans Christian Andersen fairytale —the tale of the illegal refugees who risked it all to live like cockroaches, hiding in the dank cracks of an unknown society where they hope no one will find them, antennae forever twitching, listening for the heavy boot of National Security, only to discover that the strange new place they call home has all the ugliness of the world they left behind, except worse, because here you’re stripped of rights, dignity, personhood.”
“’Life is a big piece of sugarcane’. ‘Sugarcane?’ ‘Yes, a maldito sugarcane! You have to bite down hard and suck as much sweetness out of it as you can.’”
The ending is open to interpretation and to what we have learned and think about Yola. I liked it, as I liked the whole book, and whichever choice readers think she goes for, it is certain to be hopeful and positive (although this being Yola, not without a touch of irony and ambivalence). Considering what happens during the book, the ending is perhaps too neat, but this is a comedy so it goes with the territory, and I think most readers will enjoy it.
This is a great debut novel, which deals in serious topics using a comedic register that in my opinion works very well but might not suit everybody. The characters are wonderful, if somewhat cartoonish at times, and the family Palacios is likely to stay with readers for a long time. I recommend this novel to people interest in finding new authors, and who don’t mind the use of dark comedy to discuss important issues. I highly recommend this book and I am looking forward to the next novel by the author.
Thanks to NetGalley, the publisher and the author for this fabulous novel, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click (the book is published on the 14th of May 2020, so you might need to wait a couple of days to get it if you read this on the day it goes live), review, and always keep smiling!