I picked up Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton after Reese Witherspoon announced in as her July book pick for the Reese’s Book Club. Not only was this the first book I read for Reese’s Book Club but it was also my first read by Chanel Cleeton and I was not disappointed by either.
We follow two women, Elisa Perez living in Havana before the rebellion until her family’s exile in 1958 and her granddaughter Marisol, visiting Cuba for the first time in 2017. And through Elisa and Marisol we get to experience Cuba. Cleeton’s writing is so atmospheric that if I closed my eyes, I could picture Cuba, the sights, the sounds and smells. Through these characters and their experiences we also learn about the people of Cuba as a whole – those who left Cuba with their belongings on their backs, passing along memories to their descendants and those who stayed behind with hopes of change that would not happen.
One of the things that I loved about this novel, was the way that Cleeton addressed Marisol’s view of herself as a Cuban-American. How she was concerned that she wouldn’t be welcome in Cuba, that she wasn’t “Cuban” enough. It was particularly clear in the way that Cleeton described Marisol feeling both at home while still feeling like an outsider in a country that meant so much to her and to her family.
“You speak as though politics is its own separate entity,’ he says. ‘As though it isn’t in the air around us, as though ever single part of us isn’t political. How can you dismiss something that is so fundamental to the integrity of who we are as a people, as a country? How can you dismiss something that directly affects the lives of so many?”
I didn’t know very much about Cuba before I read this book. I knew some basic information but the depth of Cuba: the politics, the way Cuban’s live, the history, etc – was all new to me. The politics of Cuba come up a lot in this book as the undercurrent of the story, it pushes it forward. Not just the politics of the government, but also the politics of the social classes. How each social class viewed the rebellion, who agreed and who disagreed, and the the politics of why. And not just that, but how those who stayed in Cuba viewed those who left and vice versa.
One of my favorite things about the genre of historical fiction is that you can learn about history in a way that is almost hands on. With characters like those of Chanel Cleeton’s in Next Year in Havana, they help the reader view the situation through their own eyes in a way that a history book doesn’t. It allows you to experience it instead of just getting the facts. Chanel Cleeton describes this book as a “book of my heart”, stating that her family also escaped Cuba and that she credits their stories with some of the bases for this book. The fact that her family lived through these experiences only adds to that feeling.
Ultimately I loved this book, and I am really looking forward to more of Chanel Cleeton’s writing, especially to hear Beatriz’s story in When We Left Cuba in 2019.
My Rating: 4/5 Stars