Her Mother's Mother's Mother And Her Daughters

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

This book by Maria Jose Silveira is part history, part novel, part feminist saga. It depicts 500 years in the life of a Brazilian family, beginning in 1500 and finishing in 2011, with each new daughter taking the place of her mother. The stories are based on the author’s actual ancestors. Silveira, who has written ten novels, brings to life each era with remarkable skill and knowledge, catching you up in a magical spell which lasts for all 335 of its pages (the deft translation from the Portuguese is by Eric M.B. Becker).

Silveira’s page-turning gifts are matched by her ability to write character. Whether she is centering on the daughter of a Tupiniquim warrior, or a slave child, or a farmer’s daughter, or a rancher’s wife, Silveira paints a vivid, three-dimensional portrait of that person, enabling the reader to know what she is doing, thinking, feeling, and dreaming. Equally vivid is her depiction of period, custom, folklore and class.

The women in this novel do not have it easy, owing to the deep-grained machismo, racism and violence of Brazilian society down through the ages. Most of the book’s heroines lead short, brutal, tragic lives, falling victim to slavery, exploitation, illness, rape and even murder. But still the matrilineal line survives and evolves, slowly but steadily gaining in strength and resolve, leading to Maria Flor in the 20th century, an emancipated woman whose mother was a left-wing revolutionary. Although Maria Flor has traded politics and armed struggle for the comfortable life of a fashion stylist, she still feels a connection to her past.

“She can feel the weight of the impossible silence that belongs to the blacklands and to the darkness,” Silveira writes. “She hears a voice echoing through the woods, the melancholy chords of a piano and lament of violins. Horses galloping and livestock mooing, gunshots, feet running, blood, blood, and more blood, the taste of red savanna dust, the heights of the jajoba tree, and the warm scent of a woman. All this, she knows, is a taste of the past in disguise.”

(Open Letter Books, $16.95 ppbk)