“When his trouble really started, I missed it,” remembers the narrator of “A Contract Overseas,” one of the nine deceptively quiet stories in Mia Alvar’s debut collection, In the Country. A college student who dreams of being a published novelist, the character is supported by her brother, Andoy, a hopeless romantic who’s left his pregnant girlfriend, mother and sister in the Philippines while he rakes in the dramatically higher salary a chauffeur can command in Saudi Arabia. Always an observant scribbler, Alvar begins to write fiction -- that is, fictionalized accounts of her brother’s experience overseas, with his generous Saudi boss and fellow Filipino workers.
In search of narrative conflict, she dashes his seemingly perfect employment with cliché dust-ups over scratched sports cars. “I began to see that Andoy’s luck could last in real life while I embellished it with fictional disasters," she thought. "I stopped searching for the hidden dangers in his tapes and letters home.” Though her whole fiction career is predicated on her brother’s financial support as well as his real-world adventures, her observational powers falter when it comes to him. Only when it’s too late does she realize she’s been too self-absorbed to be the sister or writer she thought she’d been. This anxiety of obligation laces through Alvar’s collection, as her characters struggle to negotiate the line between duty and martyrdom, self-care and solipsism.
Each of the nine stories arises from Filipino experiences, both in the country and of the diaspora, and Alvar interweaves them into a cobwebby ecosystem -- the expatriate working as a successful pharmacist in America, a bored middle-class stay-at-home wife, the self-effacing maid scraping by in foreign countries, political activists in Manila.
Even the most isolated of these struggling souls seems less alone than so many individualistic Americans we read about. A sense of mutual duty and community binds Alvar’s characters to other Filipinos they encounter, even those from different classes. "These shy and sunburned servants couldn't host us in their homes if they wanted to," acknowledge the comfortable wives of Filipino office workers in Bahrain, of their fellow countrymen who've immigrated for far less profitable jobs in "Shadow Families." "And so we welcomed them, every Thursday, to eat and sing with us." Even their employers, for whom many cook, clean, drive and provide childcare, are viewed with an almost familial sense of dedication.
Yet this very sense of community threatens at times to undo its individual members. In “Old Girl,” a politician’s wife surveys a life given over to her husband’s (often dangerous) whims; in “Esmeralda,” a long-suffering immigrant to America finally succumbs to a happiness that’s just for her, and is wracked by guilt. Remembering her need to support her family back in the Philippines and to abide by her Catholic beliefs, she muses, “Each day, His Book reminded you [...] what joy it was to serve, to bear another’s load. Those loads weren’t heavier than a crown of thorns, were they?”
Alvar’s stories aren’t short, exactly. Each feels deeply developed, like a novel that ends too soon. Alvar is in the process of developing “In the Country,” the title novella, into a full-length novel, and the richness of the characters and their troubled relationships seem likely to benefit from a more in-depth exploration.
Certain stories, such as “The Virgin of Monte Ramon” and “Old Girl,” never seem to find the momentum promised by their premises (the former, which sees a friendship bud between a boy born without legs and a poor classmate marginalized by her dark skin and uncontrollably heavy menstruation, is particularly intriguing). The best of Alvar’s tales, such as “The Kontrabida,” “Shadow Families” and “The Miracle Worker,” seduce with homely, familiar characters but emotionally stun us with unforeseen twists.
Though slightly uneven, Alvar’s In the Country frankly and evocatively limns the torment of internal conflict, as her characters seek a seemingly impossible compromise between themselves and the world they live in.
The Bottom Line: In a strong debut, Alvar brings to life a range of Filipino experiences that resonate both with the power of a unique identity and the universal wisdom of human experience.
What other reviewers think: NPR: "Beyond literary novelty [...] what will make readers want to remain in the tired and sad company of Alvar's workers and wanderers is her own gorgeous writing style."
Publishers Weekly: "In this stunning debut collection, the yearnings of the characters resonate well beyond the page, and each story feels as rich, as deep, and as crafted as a novel."
Who wrote it? Mia Alvar was born in Manila and raised in Bahrain and New York City. She’s published short stories in One Story, The Missouri Review, and more, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize twice. In the Country is her debut collection.
Who will read it? Readers who love slow-burning, well-crafted short stories, especially about the immigrant experience.
Opening lines: “My mother was waiting in front of our house when I rode up in a taxi. ‘There you are,’ she said, as if we’d simply lost each other for an hour or two, at a party. I only half-embraced her, afraid she might break if I held too tight. She hadn’t been able to collect me from the airport herself. Years ago my father had forbidden her to drive, though I supposed he could do little to prevent it now.”
Notable passage: “Imagining Jaime’s captor was so easy it hurt. Over the years Milagros’s own brothers, strapped for cash, had accepted every kind of odd job on earth. What threats or offers had been made in exchange for Jaime? His captor might have been a father too, thinking only of his sons, their mouths to feed.
After they drove together a second time through the city, she came home with Jim’s gray suit jacket over her own clothes, exhausted. Beside her Jim gave off the oily smell of someone up all night. Jackie was at the door. Milagros looked away from her and went to bed.
‘Jaime is in the country, visiting relatives,’ she could hear Jim saying. ‘Don’t ask your mother about it.’”
In the Country by Mia Alvar Knopf, $26.95 Published June 16, 2015
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