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BOOK REVIEW : A Powerful Move Back to Ethnic Roots : HOW THE GARCIA GIRLS LOST THEIR ACCENTS <i> Julia Alvarez</i> ; Algonquin Books $16.95, 290 pages

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Julia Alvarez’s first novel, “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents,” is the story of the Garcia de la Torres family, a doctor and his wife and four daughters who flee their island home in the Dominican Republic after a failed coup in the late 1950s and move to New York to take up life as Americans.

Like a number of novels that have gained attention in the last few years, Alvarez’s work comes from the “hurly-burly of the unsettled magma between two worlds"--to borrow a vivid phrase from another immigrant novelist, Bharati Mukherjee.

In one of Alvarez’s worlds--the island world of the Dominican Republic--Haitian maids with blue-black skin serve dinners in family compounds and in the private of their rooms practice voodoo, while the privileged children of their employers race through guava groves with their cousins, and bloody revolutions are quietly plotted in back alleys.

In the other world--the airless margins of the immigrant neighborhoods of New York--things are quite different. There are no servants here, no extended family, no guava groves. The well-born Garcias live in reduced circumstances, and their shy and uncertain daughters, once so pampered and protected, must fend off hostile ethnic taunts and look on helplessly as flashers lure them toward car windows with foreign words.

“We didn’t feel we had the best the United States had to offer,” one of the girls says in an off-handed way with regards to their relocation. “We had only secondhand stuff, rental houses in one red-neck Catholic neighborhood after another.”

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Cooped up in little suburban houses, the Garcia sisters--Carla, Sandra, Yolanda and Sofia--soon discover the rules are as strict in America as for island girls, but there was “no island to make up the difference.” They know they can’t go back to the Dominican Republic, where the menace of the secret police remains. The only choice left to them is to become fully American--lose their accents and plunge in.

The novel opens with the Garcia sisters meeting in 1989 to celebrate their father’s 70th birthday, and moves backward in time, chapter by chapter, until we see them as children, still living happily on the island.

Initially, the grown Garcia girls sound like an ordinary group of middle-class women, so completely have they become “Americanized.” Carla is a therapist, Yolanda a poet, and Sofia, the enfant terrible of the family, has just had a baby.

But things change. Distinct voices emerge. The novel becomes more powerful with each passing chapter as it moves backwards in time toward their early life in America and on the island. Here is the real heart of the story--not so much what they became, but where they came from.

A chapter where the doctor and his wife, newly arrived in New York, take the four girls out to a nightclub called El Flamenco to meet old friends is particularly wonderful. You can see this place, its bright, gaudy floor show and unctuous waiters. The children are all dressed up for the occasion and we sense their pride in being in a Spanish restaurant: “Spanish was something other people paid to be around,” they suddenly realize in a burst of positive identification.

There are other finely observed moments, such as when little Yolanda mistakes the snow outside her school window for the radioactive fallout she’s been warned about in civil defense drills, or the art lessons conducted by Dona Charito on Saturday mornings on the island.

But it’s the ending of the book which supplies the most powerful metaphorical image. Little Yolanda, still a child in the Dominican Republic, finds a black kitten in the coal-shed, too young to be taken from its mother. She snatches it anyway, and carries it to the house in her little toy drum, beating on the drum furiously to drown out the cries of the kitten.

Once in the house, she grows frightened and tosses the kitten out the window. Later she discovers it has disappeared. What has happened to the kitten? Yolanda never knows, and neither do we, except we understand that it has been wrested from one world while still too young, and cast out into another, much the way the Garcias are torn from their island and set lose in a foreign land. Years later, Yolanda still dreams of the kitten:

“There are still times I wake up at three o’clock in the morning,” she confesses in the last part of the book, “and peer into the darkness. At that hour and in that loneliness, I hear her, a black furred thing lurking in the corners of my life, her magenta mouth opening, wailing over some violation that lies at the center of my art.”

That’s simply wonderful writing, and there’s a good deal of it in this debut novel by a lively and gifted author.

Next: Carolyn See reviews “The Tomcat’s Wife” by Carol Bly (HarperCollins).


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