Juventud, a novel by Vanessa Blakeslee, reviewed by Leland Cheuk


Juventud is Spanish for “youth,” which is what is at stake for Mercedes Martinez, the fifteen-year-old in Vanessa Blakelee’s earnest and evocative first novel. Juventud is set mostly on a hacienda in Santiago de Cali, Colombia, where camping near the gates are desplazados (rural, indigenous people forced to abandon their homes due to the decades-long armed conflict between the country’s military and various armed guerilla groups). Mercedes is the prized and beautiful daughter of a successful sugarcane farmer named Diego, whose decision to return to his home country after marrying Mercedes’s Israeli-American mother cost him his marriage. Left to raise his daughter alone, Diego is highly protective of Mercedes in the place where bombings and kidnappings are common. In this passage, which occurs while Mercedes is driven home from school, Blakeslee narrates a bus hijacking with aplomb and urgency:

We sped around the bend. Fidel slammed on the brakes and we lurched, tires shrieking. A half-dozen Jeeps and canvas-topped trucks surrounded a city bus. We skidded to a stop just short of the Jeep’s rear. A camouflaged figure leaped out, pointed and shouted at us; pock-marked and thick-browed, he was no more than a teenager. Fidel flicked off the music and snatched the 9mm onto his lap. The dozen bandidos on foot pointed automatic rifles at the bus. Passengers bounded out and lined up with their hands behind their heads, the small children wailing. An old woman stumbled from the bus into the gravel, her dress askew, lumpy thighs and swollen veins exposed. A bandido yanked her to standing.

“Get down,” Fidel hissed. He palmed the steering wheel and shifted gears; our car jerked to the left. Then he punched the gas. We surged forward and looped around the hijacked bus, into the blind curve of the other lane.

Diego begins to lose his grip on Mercedes’s innocence when she meets a peacenik named Manuel. The twenty-one-year-old is totally committed to peace, which makes him a target for violence both from the government and from FARC, EPL, and other paramilitary revolutionaries in the mountains. Because peace is unpopular on all sides of the Colombian conflict, Diego warns Mercedes against getting too involved with Manuel. But love gets in the way, and during her five-month romance with Manuel, Mercedes comes of age. For every warning Diego gives (and there are many), Manuel wonders aloud whether Mercedes’s father is involved in drug trafficking. Slowly Mercedes’s comfortable, protected world on the hacienda crumbles, and the teenager begins questioning the metaphysical, the religious, and the moral:

Sister Rosemary had said that good and evil lived inside each of us—Manuel, Ana, even me. What was that evil inside me? Inside Papi? If the heart could turn black so easily, depending on what you fed it, could that happen to me?

Blakeslee portrays first love as heroic, passionate, and idealistic, and Manuel is its embodiment. When his brother Emilio is kidnapped by guerillas, Manuel chases the kidnappers into the mountains, disappears for weeks, and then returns with his brother unharmed and, like a superhero, promises to ascend the mountains again to negotiate the rescue of the remaining hostages. At this point of the novel, the narrative sags as Mercedes stands passively between the hero Manuel and the compromised Diego, whose plan to send his daughter away to an American boarding school seems quite reasonable given the danger that surrounds them. Blakeslee stretches the suspense of Manuel’s fate beyond its limits, repeating scenes that either end with Diego warning Mercedes about Manuel, or Manuel implying that Diego is a murderous drug lord. It’s two-thirds of the way through Juventud before the Manuel/Diego triangle finally comes to its tragic, but highly telegraphed head.

The second and third acts are subsequently compressed as the setting shifts to Florida, then Jerusalem, then Berkeley, then Mexico, then back to Columbia. The focus of the novel pivots away from the lost innocence of youth to a rushed picaresque that includes Mercedes’s adjustment to American life, her quest to connect with her Israeli mother, and her attempts to find love again. The final third of the novel covers fifteen years, and only in the final pages is the reader clear that the entirety of the novel has been told from the perspective of a thirty year-old and highly successful Mercedes. In fact, she’s so successful and balanced that it’s hard to spot the fifteen year-old who lost everything one night in Colombia in the rather psychically healthy adult version of Mercedes.

Blakeslee is such a gifted prose stylist that I lamented the devastating novel that Juventud could have been with better pacing and a deeper dramatization of Colombia’s armed conflict. The country and all the metaphysical, filial, and political forces that drove Manuel and Mercedes together and then apart essentially disappear from the latter part of the book.

Mercedes observes that “A body was so much—how could anyone pretend otherwise? And yet what was a body but a window for life, what the guitar was for song?” The further Juventud drifted away from the consequences of losing one’s youth, the more the novel became an occasionally beautiful song, as opposed to a window into the psyche of a woman who learned at such an early age that the good and evil in our hearts causes everlasting loss.

Juventud, by Vanessa Blakeslee. Chicago, Illinois: Curbside Splendor Publishing, October 2015. 300 pages. $15.95, paper.

Leland Cheuk’s novel The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong is forthcoming in 2015 (CCLaP Publishing). He is a MacDowell Colony fellow, and his short fiction has appeared in publications such as Valparaiso Fiction Review, Tahoma Literary Review, and Lunch Ticket. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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