A Review: Monstress by Lysley Tenorio
In Tenorio’s story “The View from Culion,” a longtime resident of an island leprosarium befriends the newest arrival, an American solider gone AWOL in the Philippines. They have one physical encounter, rare on their ill island:
He fits his fingers in between my own, explores the curve of my wrist, the deep lines of my palm. I press my thumb into his hand, feel his skin move over bone. Then the darkness takes his form as he leans into the curtain and into me, his forehead resting against mine, and I think that maybe this is the warmth of flesh; long since forgotten, perhaps something I never, ever knew.
Though in many ways a collection about the mingling of Filipino and American cultures, Monstress distinguishes itself far beyond cultural clashes by illuminating definitive moments when characters achieve more than they thought was possible—or, at least, begin to realize the vastness of possibility. The stories build around these moments, generating a viciously real range of characters. With prodigious skill, Tenorio captures a chorus of voices, male and female, old and young, defiant and resigned. He only falters slightly when switching to third-person narration, which, in his affecting stories, simply distances the reader too much from the narrator. Otherwise, the characters’ experiences and their universality will astound: forget Filipino-American relations because these stories are about all of humanity’s hopes for something more.
In Monstress, readers will encounter an airport employee in Manila who resolves to fight the Beatles after they insult the First Lady, a youthful “superassassin” in California who believes his father was the Green Lantern, two generations of fraudulent Filipino healers (one determined to escape his family’s lies), and, in the title story, a film actress who begins her career in Filipino horror films like The Squid Children of Cebu. Obviously, the stories do not lack engaging premises; in fact, they lack very, very little. These unique stories expand into ripe characters and just right prose that captures turmoil and epiphanies in simple phrases, such as:
He got out of the car, but before he closed the door he leaned in. “It was the first perfect night I ever had,” he said. “Know what I mean?”
I didn’t. “Call me in a few days,” I said.
In this story, “The Brothers,” Edmond recalls his relationship with Eric, his transsexual brother, after Eric’s death; in the above quotation, Edmond quietly realizes how much more fulfilled his shunned and snarled brother was—realizes it in two words, “I didn’t.”
All the while, the stories’ elder Filipinos (like Edmond and Eric’s mother) repel their younger, more ambitious counterparts—these youths who want to meet the Beatles, not fight them, and who believe that “no place was worse than the one you were from.” But whether ostensibly searching for a new life in America or John Lennon’s approval, a breakthrough role in American cinema or a way off of Culion, hushed revelations suggest that the characters’ universal goal is understanding: “the moment when [they are] utterly and finally known.” And I cannot think of a more human story than that.
* * *
Monstress: Stories by Lysley Tenorio
Ecco Books, February 2012
ISBN: 9780062059567. 240 pgs.
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