THE PLOT: America is Not the Heart follows Hero, who moves from the Philippines to California to live with her Uncle Pol and Aunt Paz in the early 90’s. An illegal immigrant, Hero spends her days looking after her young cousin, Roni, until she gets a job at a Filipino restaurant. Hero meets friends and finds love at the restaurant, but she can’t help thinking about the life she left behind in the Philippines. A former soldier in the communist New People’s Army, the book goes back and forth between Hero’s life waging guerilla war in the mountains and her new life in the USA.
OVERALL RATING: I loved this book. Like, LOVED. It’s not only five-star-worthy, it’s also in my top ten novels of all time. It focuses on character, rather than plot, and the use of language is masterful. Beautiful description and playful use of words, tenses, point of view and speech, against a backdrop of political, racial and cultural awakening, plus a realistic LGBTQ+ love story – this book has stolen my heart.
GOOD BITS: Firstly, author Elaine Castillo is a linguistic genius. In the hands of other writers, many of her plays with language could seem forced. The prologue is in the 2nd person, there’s no quotation marks for direct speech, many untranslated phrases in languages and dialects from the Philippines, and sentences that go on too long or end abruptly. But, I loved it. Despite what could be seen as gimmicks, the novel reads like a person is saying the words aloud, which adds a level of gritty realism.
Secondly, the characters and relationships between characters are so tender and juicy and real and well thought out. There’s so much backstory and richness to all of the key characters, which informs their interactions with each other. So many things left unsaid, misunderstood and just out of reach that makes this novel mirror real human interaction.
Thirdly, there’s an LGBTQ+ love story but the characters’ only defining characteristics aren’t that they’re LGBTQ+. Hallelujah! I really don’t want to spoil this, but I felt the romantic element slotted into the novel nicely and didn’t feel forced.
Finally, I learned so much about the Philippines. The distinct flavour of some of the islands, internal politics between class and race, the political history of the war in the seventies. None of this was laboured but slotted into the background of the novel nicely. I love that Castillo deliberately assumes her reader knows some of the history, or can bloody well google it, without trying to cram in lots of context. In itself, it’s a statement about how much we broaden our horizons and take the time to learn about other cultures, which is echoed by some of the characters who grew up in the US.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: I wasn’t wholly satisfied by the ending, which felt a bit abrupt. I could’ve done with a bit more resolution and I wanted more about Paz and her family (although the author signals at the end of the prologue that we’re not going to get that). But I accept the ending, as the whole novel is a snapshot of a life. One life, not multiple lives (as Hero would say).
OVERALL: I found myself reading this novel slowly because I wanted to bathe in the language and enjoy the experience of reading. This is what I love in a book – I wasn’t desperately racing towards the climax of the plot, I was just enjoying the characters and their world and wanted to stay with them for as long as possible. I feel like I really ‘got’ this book, and it ‘got’ me – the ultimate pleasure of reading.