Tuesday, May 26, 2009
weekly book review: telex from cuba, by rachel kushner
From 1940 until Castro’s 1959 revolution, Cuba’s economy was almost completely dominated by the United States. Americans controlled the country’s nickel, fruit and sugar industry, and enjoyed a friendly relationship with Fulgencio Batista, its president. American enclaves were established in the most desirable areas of the country, and massive amounts of wealth were amassed by a few on the backs of many. For a slice of time, Cuba was an idyllic second home for many Americans, although this would all soon come to rot with Castro’s successful overthrowing of President Batista, spelling the end of friendly relations between the two countries.

This is the Cuba where Rachel Kushner's mother was raised, her childhood spent in an enclave established by The American Fruit Company where her daughter's novel is set. Telex From Cuba, Kushner’s first novel, is a multi-layered exploration of this unique part of Cuban/American history. Kushner focuses mainly on the American expatriates, however, local prostitutes, revolutionaries, and wealthy local men of industry all make appearances. But although reasonably well-developed, none of Kushner’s characters held my interest. If it taught me anything, Telex From Cuba showed me that bored, wealthy suburbanites are as boring in 1950s Cuba as they are in 2000s America.

As a general rule I try to be kind when reviewing authors’ first novels, but when a literary debut is so well-received that it's short listed for both The National Book Award as well as the Pulitzer Prize for fiction….well, I figure enough praise has already been lavished that it’s safe for me to give my brutally honest opinion. And honestly, I did not like Telex From Cuba. It was well-written, however frightfully boring, especially in the second half when it seemed downright interminable. I didn’t care about any of the characters, the ending was anti-climactic, and although she did pique my interest enough in this period of Cuba’s history to keep me reading, Kushner's plot wasn’t enough to satisfy.

In sum, I found Telex From Cuba to be an ambitious piece of historical fiction, but massively dull. ¡Muy decepcionante!

Rachel Kushner
322 pages, 2008

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