Friday, August 27, 2010

Q is for Quito

Rather than choose a biographical novel about a famous European queen for the letter Q in Historical Tapestry's alphabet challenge, I thought I'd write about a real-life heroine from Quito, Ecuador. South American settings don't figure much in English-language historical fiction, which is exactly why Jaime Manrique's Our Lives Are the Rivers first caught my attention. That, and the cover model's unique hairstyle.

History recognizes Manuela Sáenz, mistress of the brilliant revolutionary and Colombian president Simón Bolívar, as one of South America’s earliest feminists and greatest patriots. She earned the nickname “La Libertadora del Libertador” – the liberator of the liberator – for helping her lover escape an assassination attempt in 1828. In his bold and lyrical fourth novel, Manrique vividly portrays the passionate woman whose love affairs with one man and his vision were inseparable in the end.

“I was born a rich bastard and died a poor one,” Manuela tells us, beginning her tale with her childhood schooling at a convent in Quito. The nuns’ cruel treatment of Manuela, the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy criolla by a Spanish nobleman, turns her against Catholicism for life. In her eyes, the Spanish remain a symbol of repression and slavery, and she grows up intensely admiring Bolívar and his ideals. Although her father recognizes her at last, he forces her to marry a wealthy Englishman; this cements her negative opinion of his countrymen. Manuela’s all-too-brief relationship with the legendary Bolívar, the great love of her life, is the culmination of her dream to unite with the revolutionary cause.

In alternating between the viewpoints of Manuela and her African slaves, Jonotás and Natán, Manrique gives us further insight into Manuela’s character. His prose is direct yet evocative, full of the vibrant color of colonial South America – its flowering plants, its wild fauna, its horrible, bloody violence. Romantic and tragic in equal measure, Our Lives Are the Rivers is well worth reading by anyone familiar with South American history, and especially by those who aren’t.

Our Lives Are the Rivers was published by HarperCollins/Rayo in 2006, and the paperback is still in print ($13.95, 384pp). The original Spanish title is Nuestros Vidas Son Los Rios (same publisher and price). Parts of this post appeared previously in the Historical Novels Review.


  1. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. Somehow, despite my strong interest in South American literature, this never made it on my radar. It's now on my to read.

  2. I'll send my friend over here. She's writing a South American historical.

  3. Great rec and review! I've not heard of this book but I'm going to look for it now.

  4. Tara, what other works of South American literature would you recommend? I'm a fan of Isabel Allende, and if you feel similarly, this one should appeal as well.

    Rosslyn, that's exciting news; I'm always up for out-of-the-ordinary settings.

    Thanks, Audra! For some reason this book never got the press it deserved.

  5. Hi! I am Rosslyn's friend. I am very excited to see that there is interest in this type of literature. My novel takes place only 40 years after this one in Quito, Guayaquil and the Galapagos Islands.

    Sarah, besides the obvious and famous writers (Garcia Marquez (colombian), Mario Vargas Llosa (peruvian), Jorge Amado (brazilian), you could try Marcela Serrano (chilean, but more contemporary fiction). If you like historicals, you may want to try Arturo Perez Reverte (he's from Spain) his novel "Alatriste" was made into a movie with Viggo Mortensen (my husband loves this novel.) Also try The Shadow of the Wind (this takes place in Barcelona in the 40's) and The Angel's Game from Carlos Ruiz Zafon (also Spanish). If you like Allende, you may also like the mexican Laura Esquivel (Like Water for Chocolate). Her latest book is a historical fiction about La Malinche, Hernan Cortes' lover and a famous icon in Mexican history.

    Hope this helps!

  6. Hi Lorena, that sounds like a fascinating setting - I'd be interested to hear any plans for publication as they develop! I've heard of the authors you mentioned, aside from Marcela Serrano, who's new to me -- although I haven't read any of them aside from Like Water for Chocolate. I've added the rest to my wishlist.

    Isabel Allende's latest is on my pile for review, likely within the next month or two.

  7. Anonymous4:48 PM

    How about CITY OF SILVER, a mystery set in 17th century Peru/Bolivia (Potosi) by Annamaria Alfieri (2009)

    Sarah Other Librarian

  8. It is a setting that doesn't seem to get a lot of attention. I had read Isabel Allende and liked those books.

  9. I loved City of Silver (wrote it up for NoveList last year). I'd gladly read another set there, though the ending didn't make it seem like there'd be a sequel.