Book Review of THE NEWSPAPER WIDOW, novel by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard
University of San Tomas Publishing House, 2017, softcover, 238 pages, ISBN 9780715068116
“The Fictional Technique of Cecilia Brainard’s The Newspaper Widow”
By Paulino Lim, Jr.
The author states that her original intention was to write a mystery about a priest found dead in a creek, but the character portrayal overshadowed the plot, elevating the novel above a page-turning whodunit. Still, the murder hooks the reader, and is rewarded with a satisfying conclusion.
It opens with a startling image: “In the summer of 1909, Ubec was overrun by rats.” The image is a leitmotif that intensifies specific incidents narrated, and becomes an element of the setting — the fictionalized Cebu — that is undergoing an “epidemic of rats.” (184) The year 1909 was the transition period from the Spanish to the American occupation of the Philippines, capsulized by a 19th-century French travel writer thus: “three hundred years in a Spanish convent and fifty in Hollywood.”
Of the two main protagonists — Ines Maceda and Melisande Moreau — the enigmatic Frenchwoman captivates me the most. Ines enters the novel as a grieving widow whose husband Pablo has passed away less than a year ago, complaining about the jasmine ruined by the rats. Melisande slights the bombastic diction of Pablo , foundet of The Ubec Daily, who used such words as “ineluctable,” “procrustean,” and “antediluvian.” She tries to the grief-stricken Inez saying, “It’s good to have fun. We’re not here in this world for a long time you know. (17)
Melisande’s joie de vivre runs constant in the novel, but Ines evolves from being a widow to that of a successful newspaper woman — reporter and publisher. This development occurs as the plot unfolds, starting with the arrest of her son Andres by Police Chief Borja on suspicion of murdering the Spanish priest. If found guilty Andres faces execution by a firing squad introduced by the Americans, in stead of the garrote used bu the Spaniards, which has “more poetry than the rude shots fired at the condemned man.” (164)
How do the characters dominate the narrative? Brainard does it with a skill that is informed by her love for drawing — precise, visual and imaginative. The first time Melisande visits Ines, she is wearing “a frilly Parisian-style dress, bright yellow … her face powdered and rouged, her lips red , and her reddish-brown hair swept up, with a few errant tendrils bouncing around her face.” She makes Ines self-conscious with “her simple black dress and hair confined in a tight bun” (14)
With the novel’s omniscient point of view, the narrator is free to explore the characters’ background, thoughts and dreams, creating a visual as well as psychological portraits. The background includes the setting (place and time) and the historical context of Americans taking over the country that the Spaniards sold to them for $20 million, including Guam and Puerto Rico, concluded in the Treaty of Paris on April 11, 1899.
The plot, that hinges on the quest for the murderer of the Spanish priest Zafra, involves many colorful characters, each with a personal history. A couple in particular are a Catalan composer Esteban and his Filipino friend Juan de la Cruz, a dancer. (Father Zafra used to dine with them on Sunday evenings.) The reader gets to know these characters as they come alive on the page with specific details that invoke a historical event. An American young man John Parker, whom Ines and Melisande meet on a train, tells them that he’s going to teach high school at McKinley. The dialogue links the encounter with the Thomasites, the first group of teachers who arrived on the USS Thomas in 1901. (102) Another American Dr. MacAllister, who administers the Culyo Leper Colony in the novel, recalls the time when the U.S. used to run a leper colony named Culion.
Driven by curiosity of whodunit to Zafra, the plot takes the reader to the Babaylans, an opulent wedding in Manila, and the coronation of the Ubec princess. Brainard lavishes description on costumes, food, and wraps up the narrative with the arrival of Samir, who was once in love with Melisande, but married someone else. Now a widower, he is coming to Ubec with his son Didier hoping to rekindle Melisande’s love.
BIO: Dr. Paulino Lim, Jr. is an award-winning Filipino author of scholarly articles, novels, short story collections, and plays. He is Professor Emeritus at the California State University, Long Beach, California.
Tags: Philippines books, Philippines literature, Philippines novel, Cebu, historical, De La Salle University, DLSU