She Writes Press provided me with a ARC of At The Narrow Waist Of The World by Marlena Madura Baraf so thank you to both publisher and author! I’ve really got into memoirs recently so was excited to read one in particular that explores both mental health and cultural shifts, two topics I’m very interested in.
Raised by a lively family of Spanish Jews in tropical and Catholic Panama of the l950s and 1960s, Marlena depends on her many tíos and tías for refuge from the difficulties of life, including the frequent absences of her troubled mother. As a teenager, she pulls away from this centered world—crossing borders—and begins a life in the United States very different from the one she has known.
This lyrical coming-of-age memoir explores the intense and profound relationship between mothers and daughters and highlights the importance of community and the beauty of a large Latin American family. At the Narrow Waist of the World examines the author’s gradual integration into a new culture, even as she understands that her home is still—and always will be—rooted in another place.
(Taken from Goodreads)
The memoir is a interesting genre within non-fiction – although based on true events, the ones that come across as the most factual and narrative are generally the ones that don’t wow their audience. A truly good memoir should read like fiction, which is something that Baraf has achieved with ease.
I started At The Narrow Waist Of The World with an incredibly limited understanding of Panama as a country, however gorgeously rich descriptions made me feel like I was there, soaking up the culture and experiencing Baraf’s memories as if they were my own. The way she describes people is fascinating as well, drawing from her own perceptions to illustrate them in both their highest and lowest moments. The memoir focuses mostly on her mother, Julita, with her complex and sometimes bizarre actions as a result of her mental health. However, every character mentioned is described in depth with no elements to her story feeling like an afterthought.
What I really loved was Baraf’s writing style which, as well as being highly descriptive, flows like poetry. Chapters within chapters range from a few pages to just a few paragraphs, weaving the intimate moments of the author’s lives together yet keeping them all as separate entities. Many words and phrases are written in Spanish (though mostly explained in English) and I felt this was an excellent technique to retain the sense of culture that is so important to the story behind the words. Baraf herself explains that using the English equivalents just didn’t get across what she wanted, and after reading I agree with her in this respect.
I also have to comment on the cover – I’ve come across a fair few memoirs that don’t quite get it right, yet I love the cover for At The Narrow Waist Of The World. Usually I don’t go for personal photos on the front but this one really works, as does the leafy background and simple font (a font which carries over into the chapter headings where it looks equally as good).
Although a short read, At The Narrow Waist Of The World is an engrossing debut memoir that gives such an eye-opening insight into two major situations within Marlena Maduro Baraf’s life – the sudden changes in culture from moving to the US from Panama, and living the majority of her life with a mentally ill mother, and how this affected each member of the family individually. I was captivated throughout, so this one is high on my list of recommended books to read.
If you’d like to purchase a copy of At The Narrow Waist Of The World then you can do so here:
I love words that illustrate different perspectives. Hybrid. Hyphenated. Bilingual. Multicultural. Synthesis. They point to the richness possible with human groups. Soy panameña y americana. Can you split the two?
Born and raised in Panama, I left my tiny isthmus for Los Estados Unidos de America on the cusp of twenty. In my thirties, I swore allegiance to my adopted country. I worked as book editor and designer and studied the art and craft of writing at the Sarah Lawerence Writing Institute. I love cats and hats. That is, the Panama Hat.
(Taken from Goodreads)
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