The Marble Army, by Gisele Firmino. San Francisco, California: Outpost19, March 2016. 184 pages. $16.00, paper.
Brazil and America might appear to have many differences—language, development, and location. However, at one time, America and Brazil were both colonies fighting off the suppressor to gain freedom of speech and assembly. The Marble Army by Gisele Firmino eliminates all predisposed differences, so the reader can relate to these characters from across the globe and empathize with their struggle against a war on their homeland.
The Marble Army focuses on the Fonte family’s struggle through the Brazilian coup d’etat from 1964 to 1985. Pablo, the eldest son, gets involved with the resistance against the newly empowered militia and is distant from his family. As a father, Antonio worries for Pablo’s safety, often at the expense of his wife and son. He becomes obsessed by events surrounding protests, leaving little time to be a father and husband. Rosa, the mother of the two boys, works tirelessly to fill each new house with the aroma of food to produce a shield against unwanted change. Luca is left to miss his older brother, idolize his father, and please his mother. Luca struggles to come to terms with his missed chances in life due to the war changing his perceived fate. Luca believes his life would have been better had the coup not torn his family apart. Without all the members of the Fonte family together, the house is not a home.
Luca says in the first line of the book, “Our only home was in Minas de Leão.” Though he will eventually live in four other places, this house was his family’s only home. Luca singles this house out because he and his family lived holistically there. Once the military released Antonio from his position at the mine, the family moves to Porto Alegre to begin anew. Here, the family struggles to stay together as a functioning unit for the first time. The family’s relationship continues to weaken with each move, so the first home is worshiped for its association with better times. It’s Gisele Firmino’s unique ability to describe and display these familial scenes that makes the story so intriguing.
Firmino chooses to narrate the whole novel through Luca’s eyes. Some sections are a first person narration from Luca, which gives a close and intimate feel to the reader. Luca also tells portions of the story where he isn’t present. He speaks for Rosa, Pablo, and Antonio. Luca tells the reader:
The fact was that [Rosa] had no doubt in her mind that she had failed. As a mother, she had failed. And it cost her more than she could ever afford. It wasn’t all [Antonio’s] fault and she knew that. But how could he possible continue to sleep like that was one thing she couldn’t understand.
Luca shows us Rosa’s deep concern with Antonio’s behavior. It doesn’t seem right to her that he can sleep while so much turmoil is outside their front door. Although these are Rosa’s thoughts and feelings, Luca recounts these emotions to the reader to create a more complete picture of how the war has reached all aspects of their lives. They can’t, or shouldn’t, sleep while people are being taken. It’s as if Luca has taken it upon himself to tell everyone’s story in the most appropriate way. He is the fulcrum point through which all details are filtered.
Firmino hits at the significance of the title early on in the novel. Luca looks back to a time when he played with marbles on the family’s sloping floor in Minas de Leão. His father slipped on several of the marbles, nearly losing his balance, and demanded that Luca quit his playing. After recounting the story, Luca says, “I remember thinking that a leveled house would probably be a good thing at that point. I was too old to play with marbles anyway.” Firmino’s words drip with importance within this excerpt. She explicitly writes that Luca desired a “leveled house,” not knowing that the new house would never become a home to him and would cause his life to be more unleveled than a few warped floorboards. Then, he felt “too old” for marbles, as if marbles were now rendered useless due to his age. This is the first hint within the novel about the title’s connection to the narrative. By placing this reference near the beginning of the novel, Firmino creates a running mystery about the marble army. The reader searches for more clues as to what role the marble army plays and is excited each time a new detail is revealed.
Firmino zooms in on the Fonte family and any reader will be sympathetic to their dynamic struggle. Readers can relate to Firmino’s themes of family and loss because they are elements of the human condition. These themes cross borders and span time. The reader can have chills and feel sober, yet desire to read more about this horrific destruction. Each country holds its own secrets, and Gisele Firmino reveals some of Brazil’s worst moments through this realistic fiction novel. The Marble Army is a brilliant debut novel that exposes the many forms of displacement associated with military upheaval. It is well worth the read.
Mindy Hartings is the the Editor in Chief of Wright State University’s Nexus Literary Journal and Advocate of the Arts. She is a volunteer workfellow for the Annual Antioch Writers Workshop and her short story “Waiting in Carthagena” is set to appear in Bewildering Stories.