University of San Tomas Publishing House, 2017, softcover, 238 pages, ISBN 9780715068116 (2017) — available from Lazada and Shopee in the Philippines
Finalist for the 37th National Book Award in the Philippines
A Different Kind of Mystery/Detective Novel
Shortlisted for the Inaugural Cirilo F. Bautista Prize for the Novel
Cecilia Manguerra Brainard’s novel, THE NEWSPAPER WIDOW, is a literary mystery set in the Philippines in 1909, shortly after the Spaniards lost to the Americans, and the Americans occupied the Philippines. The widow Ines and her friend the French seamstress Melisande solve the crime of the dead priest in the creek in order to free the son of Ines from jail. Inspired by her great-grandmother who was the first woman publisher in the Philippines, Brainard has written a character-driven novel that raises interesting and complicated questions about morality and justice while the protagonist searches for the priest’s true killer. What begins as a murder mystery transforms into something greater as love, loyalty and friendship are tested and refined.
by David Keymer, Cleveland
When her husband dies in 1909, Ines Maceda inherits his newspaper, which is running out of audience and funds; she soon finds that she’s good at both the money side and the reporting side. The paper gets a scoop about the discovery of the body of a priest who had been missing several months, but any pleasure in Ines’s coup is dampened when her son Andres is imprisoned on suspicion of murdering the priest, whose past turns out to be shadier than imagined. What follows is part detective story and part historical fiction, set in the Philippines seven years after the conclusion of the Philippine-American War (1899–1902) that cemented U.S. occupation of the islands. The mystery elements are competently plotted, and the characters appealing, and there’s a charming long-distance romance, with a hint of another yet to come. The book’s signal virtue, though, is its bighearted look at Filipino culture and society in 1909. With 23 books to her name, Brainard (Magdalena) is hardly a novice, but most of her works have appeared out of small presses (including her own Philippine American Literary House), so she might be a new addition to library collections.
VERDICT An old-fashioned novel isn’t a bad thing when it’s as well done as this one about people growing, loving, and rectifying past mistakes.
THE MANILA TIMES
by Faye Valencia
For the most part, crime fiction, also called the “whodunit,” is considered escapist entertainment. After all, it follows a formula. Crime — most often murder — serves as the centerpiece of the story, whose main character is usually a detective or expert of some sort who is guaranteed to catch the perpetrator. Consider: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s brilliant sleuth Sherlock Holmes closes every case, Stieg Larsson’s hacker extraordinaire Lisbeth Salander never fails to dish out justice, and so on.
In her paper “Murder as Social Criticism,” professor Catherine Nickerson theorizes: “The world of the detective novel is a place of untimely death, cruelty, suspicion and betrayal. If detective fiction is a literature of escape, why would anyone want to be transported to such anxious locales? Perhaps, detective fiction produces its pleasurable effects by allowing us to feel that no matter how overwhelming our own situations seem, something much worse is happening to someone else.
The Newspaper Widow (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House; 238 pages; 2017) by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard may be classified as crime fiction, but it doesn’t really follow the formula — and that, in this case, is a very good thing. The opening scene of Brainard’s murder mystery, set in the small town of Ubec in Cebu province, indicates that this isn’t your usual detective novel.
“In the summer of 1909, Ubec was overrun by rats. Rodents larger than cats scampered throughout the seaside city, fearless of man even during the daytime when the scorching sun shone down on them exposing their hideousness — their wiry brown fur, long snouts, and naked tails as long as their bodies,” it reads.
Brainard’s disturbingly vivid introduction serves as a warning that people are not always what they seem, and there are far worse things that could happen to a town than a rat infestation. In fact, the rodents were the reason for the discovery of Father Nicolas Zafra’s body. The novel’s title character, the quietly tenacious Ines Maceda, ends up covering the story for The Ubec Daily. The paper is something that Ines inherits from her late husband, the cerebral Pablo.
Ines becomes more involved in the investigation of the priest’s murder when her son Andres is identified as the main suspect. In her attempt to clear her son’s name, Ines knocks over a few cans of worms and what-not. Thankfully, Brainard does not resort to cheap tricks when it comes to the novel’s dark revelations.
“My original intention had been to write a mystery, but I rely too much on character and character development more than the plot, and so I present a novel that is more about Ines Maceda than it is about the mystery of the dead priest,” she explains.
In this sense, The Newspaper Widow follows crime fiction writer Raymond Chandler’s perspective on the genre. In his critical essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” Chandler asserts: “Murder, which is a frustration of the individual and hence a frustration of the race, may have and, in fact, has a good deal of sociological implication.”
The other quality that makes The Newspaper Widow stand out is that even the supporting characters are fully fleshed out. And they’re not just the basic personas, either. For instance, the one who becomes the title character’s unexpected best friend is a French expatriate named Melisande Moreau, who also happens to be the town’s most sought-after dress designer. Brainard gives Melisande the sauciest lines. In one scene, the Frenchwoman tells Ines: “I should go. I have to finish the mayor’s wife’s gown. She’s in the Maria Elena procession of the carnival. You know she is big-boned and it took me a while to come up with the right design, but finally I discovered that the accent has to be on her big bosom. She has beautiful breasts, so we have some cleavage, and we have to tell all eyes to look there…and not elsewhere.” Ultimately, it is Melisande who convinces Ines that she should think of The Ubec Daily as her own instead of just something that was left behind by her husband.
Then there’s a character named Juan dela Cruz, whose common name belies his extraordinary reality. Brainard writes: “People learned that Juan dela Cruz was the only son of the owner of Sandoval Rum and that father and son were like oil and water. His father had wanted Juan to go to business school, but Juan preferred fine arts and music. His father had pressured him to marry the daughter of his business partner, an unacceptable situation for Juan. Juan’s mother finally sold some of her jewelry to finance her son’s studies at the Reial Academia Catalana de Belles Arts de Sant Jordi in Barcelona.”
Juan goes on to fall in love with a Spaniard named Esteban Magri. The couple live in Ubec and are well-respected members of the community. The only real problem they encounter is when Juan also becomes a suspect in Father Zafra’s murder.Aside from its complex characters, The Newspaper Widow also contains a lot of historical detail. These include even the most disturbing things, such as instruments of torture. Brainard writes: “The garrote, an all-time Spanish favorite, was used for capital punishment during the Spanish time, and for a few years, the American military government availed of the garrote for executions.
“The principle behind garroting was simple: Crush the larynx while applying pressure to the victim’s back. All you needed was a chair with a back rest and a neck clamp which could be tightened by crank, wheel, or hand, thereby strangling the victim.”
The Newspaper Widow may not have a flashy detective as its protagonist, but it is definitely crime fiction that’s a cut above the usual whodunits. Thanks to Brainard’s elegant prose and insights, it’s also a social commentary that attempts to shine the light on the dark corners of organized religion. It does not demonize the Church, but it recognizes the fact that there are a few demons posing as angels within it.Brainard’s masterpiece also reminds us that in life, things are not always resolved as neatly as we would like them to be. There’s a clear demarcation between good and bad, but there are also a lot of gray areas that we have to learn to navigate.
by Mya Alexice
While at first glance The Newspaper Widow seems like a standard historical mystery, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Cecilia Manguerra Brainard’s novel is full and complex, overflowing with textured, fully realized characters who drive the story on every page.
That super wordsmith from Cebu, the Philippines, Cecilia Brainard, never spins a boring story. Her latest is a master whodunit that is also a period piece, a social document and most of all, a literary jewel. A must read for any humdrum season of the year. ~ F. Sionil Jose, Philippine National Artist for Literature
Cecilia Brainard’s deft hand for textured character and nuanced storytelling is on magnificent display in her latest novel The Newspaper Widow. What begins as a murder mystery transforms into something greater along the way, as love, loyalty, and friendship are tested and refined. Shortlisted for the inaugural Cirilo F. Bautista Prize for the Novel, Brainard’s novel is a captivating read. ~ Dean Francis Alfar, author of Salamanca and The Kite of Stars and Other Stories
An intriguing mystery and also very much the story of the deepening friendship between two women of opposite temperaments, Ines and Melisande, and of the men in their lives who love and have loved them. Beautifully written. Evocative. A rich depiction of character, time and place that will live in a reader’s memory. ~ Eve La Salle Caram, Author of TRIO, A Corpus Christi Trilogy
Cecilia Brainard’s poetic new novel, The Newspaper Widow, is an enchanting read. She combines compelling characters with an intriguing mystery and page-turning literary suspense. I can’t think of a more fruitful historical setting, the early years of the United State’s colonial empire in Asia, here so beautifully rendered. Beneath the mystery this is a moving story of a mother trying to protect her adult son from prison. ~ Brian Ascalon Roley, Author of American Son and The Last Mistress of Jose Rizal.
This is not your run of the mill ’ ”who done it.” Matter of fact, about halfway through The Newspaper Widow, you’ll be certain that the lawyer did it – or did he? But what this is, is Cecilia Brainard weaving her magic of culture, folklore and myth to produce a tapestry of rich Filipino history and that she remains one of its primary artisans. ~ James E. Cherry, Author of Edge of the Wind
The Newspaper Widow by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, treats readers to meaningful insights into historical events and life in the Philippines in the early 1900s. A work of fiction, it is more than a masterfully crafted and multi-layered mystery. ~ Lisa Suguitan Melnick for Positively Filipino
“The Island of the Living Dead” a chapter from The Newspaper Widow which is about a leper colony, is part of the Philippine PEN Journal HEALING, edited by Herminio Beltran, Jr., PEN International 2014. You can read it here: page 28 or 15 in this link http://www.philippinepen.ph/Journal.pdf
Tags: Philippine mystery, Filipino mystery, Filipino novels, Filipino detective novels, Filipino books, Philippine books, Philippine novels, Philippine murder mysteries