Published: April 01. 2012 2:00AM
Written by: Michel Stone
Reviewed by: Ashley Warlick
Hub City Press debuts Spartanburg novelist Michel Stone this spring with “The Iguana Tree,” the story of a young Mexican couple and their illegal immigration to the U.S.
While that is the plot, it’s hardly a fair description of the book; it’s kind of like saying the Odyssey is a story of a guy and a boat. Through two interwoven points of view, Stone makes a deeply human portrait of a thorny social issue, as well as that of a marriage and a family. Lilia and Hector are never simply immigrants or symbols, and their story quickly becomes affecting well beyond the reach of politics. Which is rather the point, after all, when it comes to thorny social issues. These things are happening to human beings.
“The Iguana Tree” opens with Lilia standing in her courtyard, the only place she’s ever lived, Puerto Isadore, somewhere deep in Oaxaca state, watching her husband, Hector, pass down the dusty lane and out of sight. She holds a cup of coffee “like a prayer,” smells the incense burning from her grandmother’s room and steps back inside her house to nurse her infant daughter, Alejandra. From this sanctuary, Lilia waits.
We follow Hector into the hands of a coyote, into darkness and doubt, packed with other men into the undercarriage of a truck, then sealed inside to cross the border. Stone writes these scenes through Hector’s eyes with an even hand, and while full of danger and tension, it’s in Lilia’s waiting that we see the mounting stress, the toll of desperation. Something has to give.
As Hector takes a job on a tree farm and tries to make a life in the South Carolina Lowcountry, saving his wages bit by bit, Lilia makes plans to join him as quickly as she can. The consequences for impatience in this territory are grave, and Lilia’s journey is complicated by Alejandra, and the need to keep her safe.
In the gritty, realistic tradition of Robert Morgan or Brett Lott, “The Iguana Tree” never shies away from hard truths, and in that it’s a difficult book to put down. If something can go wrong for Lilia and Hector, it generally does, and yet Stone holds fast to her silver linings. Both Lilia and Hector’s chapters are told from the third person point of view, and yet each voice remains distinct in tone and outlook; where Lilia is sometimes given to lyrical reflection, Hector is matter-of-fact, direct. The overall effect is conversational and intimate, a well-made, balanced story, skillfully told.