Book Review by Herminia Meñez Coben, Ph.D.
Professor Emerita from California State University of Sonoma
Title: The Newspaper Widow
Author: Cecilia Manguerrra Brainard
Publisher: University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2017, Beato Angelico Bldg., Espana, Manila, Philippines;
Number of pages: 234 pages
Softcover, $18.95 in the US
The Newspaper Widow, a fast-paced, multi-layered novel of romance and mystery, presents an international cast of characters: a Spanish friar; an ill-fated lawyer; an expatriate Frenchwoman and her gay friends, a Tagalog and a Catalan; an American doctor and researcher at the leper colony; and finally, the enterprising publisher widow of the novel’s title, Ines Maceda.
Set in urban Ubec and rural Carcar in the Eastern Visayas, Philippines during the first decade of the twentieth century, the story unfolds through the alternating voices of those principal characters, who are somehow drawn together because of the mysterious disappearance and death of the Augustinian priest, Father Zafra. Departing from the conventional structure of the murder mystery, however, the author deftly weaves the intersecting narratives of each of her characters into a complex social drama of family feuds and forbidden loves, petty jealousies and class rivalries, but also of deep friendships and enduring bonds of kinship.
Against the backdrop of Philippine history during that country’s critical transition from Spanish to American colonial rule, The Newspaper Widow, moreover, highlights the changing world of Ubecans as they confront crucial political issues such as the mandated transfer of the friars lands and land reform, governmental control of people’s health, as in the isolation of lepers and the campaign against rat infestation. Without interrupting the flow of the narrative, the author references specific historical events like the Balangiga massacre by the American military, the role of the Thomasites in the new educational system, and the establishment of a modern transportation network, as specified by the railway linking Ubec and Carcar.
The main critical voice throughout this period is the local newspapers: The Ubec Daily, founded by Professor Pablo Maceda, an intellectual and political critic, and The Light, owned by Mrs. Maceda’s childhood friend, Santiago Echeveria. The latter resembles what might be called a tabloid, devoted to local gossip, whereas the former, with guest columns by her husband’s professional colleagues, aspires to reporting the “Truth.” The existence of two local papers, with very different viewpoints, in Ubec during the first decade of the twentieth century is indicative of an emerging progressive society.
Modernity comes to Ubec also by way of its expatriates from Europe and the United States. Foreigners like the French dress designer and the Catalan choreographer introduce Ubecans to new ideas about fashion and theater. Ubec’s social elites attempt to outdo each other especially during the town fiesta, with its typical display, palabas, of the women’s prized jewelry and European-style gowns, designed by the French woman, during the carnival and the coronation of the beauty queen, choreographed as an Egyptian spectacle by the Catalan.
Still, underneath the exposure to foreign influences and growing modernization lies a strong adherence to traditional culture, as evidenced by widespread beliefs in portentous dreams, ghostly apparitions, supernatural beings, and babaylanes (shamans and local healers).
Straddling both worlds, the characters in this book, despite personal tragedies, adapt remarkably well to their fast-changing society. In the end what starts out as a major disruption at the beginning of the novel, i.e. the discovery of the victim’s skeletal remains in a creek along the Augustinian monastery, and the various personal conflicts following the event, concludes with a restoration and reunion, a community made whole once again. The last chapter provides a closure to the romance of the French Melisande, although the mysterious death of Father Zafra remains a mystery.
A must-read from a master storyteller, The Newspaper Widow promises not only to entertain but also to educate the reader about a critical period in Philippine history.
Herminia Meñez Coben
Los Angeles, California
BIO: Dr. Herminia Menez Coben is Professor Emerita from California State University of Sonoma. She is the author of “Verbal Arts in Philippine Indigenous Communities: Poetics, Societ, and History” and “Explorations in Philippine Folklore.” She was the first Filipino graduate of University of Pennsylvania’s Folklore and Folklife Department.
Tags: Philippines, Filipino, novel, literature, fiction, literary, Cebu, historical, mystery, crime, literary mystery, Ubec