The BUZZ: Telex from Cuba was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award and a New York Times bestseller and Notable Book. This is Kushner’s debut novel.
The GIST: This novel is set in the 1950’s, in Cuba’s Oriente Province, home to American expat families running the sugar cane and nickel mining operations. The story opens with the rumblings of revolution in the distance, and we are treated to a child’s eye view of American life in Cuba. As the novel progresses, we see the Americans in their enclaves stubbornly trying to make Cuba fit their needs. We witness Fidel and Raul Castro crudely plotting their overthrow of the Batista government. We meet an arms dealer and others who are necessary actors in a world on the verge of collapse, a world where telexes deliver anxious news to the mainland.
The WRITING: Uninhibited. Kushner draws insightful portraits of her characters – the Americans, their servants, the Castros, the outliers, even Hemingway – to give us the feel and taste of Cuba a half-century ago. Each person is taking a risk, whether moving a family to Cuba, making a living in the underworld, or starting a revolution; most are running away from a past that haunts them. Kushner deftly serves up issues of race, politics, business, and culture along with her cast of self-absorbed misfits. It takes a masterful writer to keep a complex novel from sinking under its own weight, and Kushner is up to the task.
BUY or BORROW: Borrow. The first half of this book is a page-turner, but it gets a bit muddied in later chapters with the introduction of less compelling characters and places. There is no single narrator, and that’s because Kushner’s main character is Cuba itself. While that makes it an impressive and ambitious novel, it’s also a challenging read. Still, Cuba is a mystery to many of us, and the story of Americans living in luxury there, and then being abruptly deported in 1958, is one I had never heard. Kushner tells it without sentimentality, exposing the ugliness of those on both sides of the fight for Cuba.
QUOTE: “But whether or not you actually committed a crime, moving to another country meant getting away from all the people who had decided what kind of person you were and how you were supposed to live your life.”