MIA ALVAR’S “IN THE COUNTRY”–HOW DO I LIKE IT? LET ME COUNT THE WAYS…

Each of the nine stories in Mia Alvar’s absorbing first collection grabs you from the start and lingers long after you’ve finished. Scrutinize as you will with your Sherlock Holmes-style magnifying glass, it’s hard to find a bad line or a word choice you might quibble with.

Ms. Alvar was born in the Philippines, spent time with her family in Saudi Arabia, and now resides in the United States. Fortunately for us, she uses her experience in each of these locales to give us tales which no one else could have written. It’s a cultural trifecta, and uniquely hers.

Her simple, straightforward prose style, reminiscent of Jhumpa Lahiri, dazzles with its choice of detail. You’ll find a cornucopia of brilliant characterizations, woven into stories that are compelling and moving, most often with a deftly orchestrated surprise lurking ‘round the bend. The assortment of “narrative strategies” is astonishing, from first-person narrators, to second-person singular, and even first-person plural! As a writer, I admire her technical versatility.

And consider the range of main characters—all but one are Filipinos—that populate these stories. Here are slum-dwellers and people who live in palatial homes. Here are trained health-care specialists (“The Miracle Worker”), Senators (“Old Girl”), models (“Legends of the White Lady”), poor students yearning to be writers (“A Contract Overseas”), dangerously proactive journalists (“In the Country”), pharmacists (“Kontrabida”), upper-middle-class families living in Bahrain (“Shadow Families”), youngsters born with stumps for legs (“The Virgin of Monte Ramon”), and mothers everywhere. Mothers, wives, nurses, whores, children, families.

My favorite among these treasures is “The Virgin of Monte Ramon.” A wheelchair-bound youngster deformed at birth lives in a mansion with a mother who holds self-invented delusions about her history and how she survives. The boy forms a striking alliance with Annelise, a brilliant and stubborn young woman from the lowliest of slums (“the ravine”). He shares his mother’s folkloric delusions until a moment of explosive revelation, provided by the town doctor, changes everything: “His words and his departure sent me reeling, as if I’d been pushed downhill to the ravine at high speed, losing all control, nothing below to catch or save me. The idea I’d been polishing like a precious stone slipped from my hands. And with it, all ideas that had carried and sustained me through the years seemed to be crumbling too. If I’d been wrong about Dr. Delacruz and my grandfather, it seemed possible I might be wrong about my mother. It seemed possible for the first time that the defects of our bodies—mine, Annnelise’s, anyone’s—were errors of nature, caused and cured by science, nothing more.”

Word is that, for her next book, Ms. Alvar is seeking to expand the included novella, “In the Country,” into a full-fledged novel. Given the narrative sweep of that story and the way it’s myriad details and characters are marshaled to a stunning conclusion, it’s hard to see how expanding it can make it any better. But given the remarkable talent that’s revealed in this book, it would be foolhardy to bet against her.

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