I’ve seen some of Butch Dalisay’s work in the movies and I’ve read his newspaper column every so often, but I must admit that I’ve never read any of his stories, and I thought I’d start this year. I normally try out authors by starting out  with their shorter works, and I’ve got a copy of Dalisay’s Old Timer and Other Stories somewhere in my Everest of TBR book. But I’ve always wanted to read Soledad’s Sister, not just because it was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007, but because I read the back-of-the-book summary and it seemed quite interesting to me.

The story is told in shifting perspectives of different characters (major and minor), in some of the best writing I’ve ever come across reading. Here’s the opening paragraph:

On a cloud-curtained evening, one Saturday in August, a corpse arrived in a zinc casket in a wooden crate at Ninoy Aquino International Airport, 237 kilometers west of Paez. The cargo manifest put the dead woman’s name as “Cabahug, Aurora V.” At 1834 hours, just as the city’s drivers began switching their headlights on and a million gas stoves roared to life, Aurora V. Cabahug’s flight rejoined the earth, although the woman herself did not, just yet; she lay deep in the Gulf Air 747′s cargo bay where it was coldest, a bulkhead away from the tiger orchids and the apricots. She had left Jeddah earlier that day — much earlier than the time itself suggested, because the plane flew ahead of the clock — 4,053 miles from Jeddah to Bangkok, pausing there for an hour and 25 minutes to take on the orchids and other precious perishables before hauling them another 1,368 miles to Manila. She was offloaded within an hour, and the 747 returned to Jeddah, again via Bangkok, on schedule at 10:20 the next morning, but it took three more days in a refrigerated customs warehouse before Aurora V. Cabahug’s body re-emerged into her country’s microbe-friendly warmth.

Butch Dalisay manages to make the most mundane things interesting; I mean, just look at that opening paragraph — a plane with a corpse in the cargo hold is landing, and he comes up with that! I’m not sure how I would describe the style, succinct and yet so expressive at the same time, as if each word was weighed to convey exactly what the author meant to say, with self-deprecating humor bobbing just beneath the surface, mostly at the fact that the absurd turn of events in the book can happen only in the Philippines (Sadly, “Aurora” is only one of 600 overseas Filipino workers who return as corpses).

So, okay, the plane lands, setting the plot in motion. A telegram is sent to the chief of police of the relatively unknown town of Paez. SPO2 Walter Zamora gets ahold of the telegram, recognizes the name of the corpse as the singer at the local bar — Rory — whom he saw onstage only the night before. Walter becomes the bearer of bad news, and Rory reveals “Aurora” is actually her older sister, Soledad, who borrowed her identity to work overseas. Walter is instructed to drive her to Manila so she can claim her sister’s body.

And I stop there, because I don’t want to give away any more of the story. The back-of-the-book summary, which caught my interest in the first place, is exactly what happens in the story. And not much more. And that was my biggest gripe about this book.

Maybe it’s the summary’s fault, setting my expectations up then giving away everything I looked forward to reading in the book, like when you watch a movie and you realize all the good parts were the ones you already saw in the trailer (don’t you just hate that?).  I expected the action to start after the point  where the summary left off, and  to my growing chagrin, it did not happen until the last quarter of the novel. And I felt a bit shortchanged, because I would have liked the story to get to that point faster and then progress from there, instead of building slowly to that point then falling fast. I did enjoy the monkey wrench ending (I like pondering the possibilities), but it might have had a bigger impact if there were a few more chapters there to set it up. I would not have minded a longer novel.

Or, you know, I just wish I hadn’t read that summary.


Soledad’s Sister, trade paperback, review copy courtesy of Anvil Publishing (thank you Anvil for making Flippers happy for Christmas!)
Rating: 3.5/5 stars
Book #2 for 2011