Swimming to forgiveness

A review of The Veins of the Ocean by Patricia Engel

Once again, I find myself captivated by a book that begins with a sad and messed up family, careens through tragedy and ends up with glimmers of light at the end of the tunnel.

At the beginning of Patricia Engel’s The Veins of the Ocean, Reina Castillo’s father is tossing her 3-year-old brother Carlito off a Miami bridge, an act of revenge against her mother’s infidelity. Fortunately for Carlito, a fisherman who witnessed the event saves him. Carlito is the favorite child of both his mother and his sister then, until he commits a similar act of revenge when years later he hears from Reina that his girlfriend has cheated on him. Unfortunately for Carlito, his act doesn't have as fortunate an outcome.

But Reina had lied; she was jealous of Carlito’s love and devotion to Isabel and feared he was leaving the family, so she made up the story about Isabel’s cheating. For her penance when Carlito is sentenced to death, Reina devotes her life to him, driving hours each weekend to be his only visitor. But things don't go well for Carlito in prison.

Tormented by her guilt, Reina retreats to a small island in the Keys, supporting herself by painting nails at a tourist hotel. There she meets Nesto, a Cuban immigrant with his own demons; he has escaped from Communist Cuba, but left his young children behind with his ex-wife. The two cautiously develop a friendship in which they eventually feel safe enough to reveal their failings as humans. Their free time revolves around the ocean, at turns deep sea diving or working at a dolphinarium. Despite the tragedy it caused earlier in her life, the ocean provides succor to Reina.

Interestingly, one of the most absorbing parts of the novel for me are the diversions Engel takes into Nesto’s devout Santeria beliefs. Closely tied to nature, Nesto sees in each rainbow, thunderstorm and ocean wave a sign of significance or portent. Gently guiding Reina through these signs as he teaches her to control her breath to spend increasing amounts of time in the water, he gives her the courage to forgive herself.

The novel takes us from the Florida Keys through Cartagena, Colombia to Cuba, carefully portraying the difficulties and trials in the lives of immigrants in the US. I enjoyed spending time in the tropics, following Reina through grief, self-discovery and ultimately forgiveness and love.