No matter how well we think we know someone, it is never truly possible to fully understand another person. Within the complex maze of the human soul, there will always be unknown corners and hidden chambers. In The Hour of Daydreams, Renee Macalino Rutledge examines this struggle between intimacy and closeness through a lens of magical realism. The novel tells the story of Manolo, a Filipino doctor who marries a woman who may or may not be human. In one of the most pivotal scenes in the book, Manolo and his wife stand together watching the stars, but all Manolo can think about is the distance between him and his wife: “The sky was dark now and infinite, and he knew this would never change, that every one of us contains a depth that could never be seen or reached by another person.
This lonely gap between souls is felt distinctly not just by Manolo and Tala, but by everyone in their community. Manolo and Tala live in Manlapaz, a fictional mountain village in the Philippines. Here, the residents live ordinary lives, with one major exception—magic leaks into the cracks of everyday existence. When they aren’t eating lugaw or shopping at the market, the people of Manlapaz trade stories about vampires and ghosts. Manopolo’s father Andres refers to the town a “way station” where spirits roam between life and death. Even Manolo, who claims not to believe in such things, always stops to say “excuse me” when he passes by an anthill in his backyard—just in case a duwende (a type of goblin) might be living there. It is commonly understood that magic can, and frequently does, wreak havoc on a person’s life. As a result, everyone in Manlapaz seems somehow cursed, and their curses bear dark secrets. Even Luchie, Manolo’s old housekeeper, is unable to shake her troubled past. Her sadness clings to the house like a forgotten ghost, just one of the novel’s many small tragedies.
But the novel’s most devastating tragedy is the disappearance of Tala, Manolo’s wife. At the beginning of the novel, Tala has already vanished from Manolo’s life, and her absence is still a source of cruel gossip. In the book’s prologue, Tala’s daughter Malaya struggles to make sense of the many conflicting views about her mother and why she left. At school, Malaya is bullied by classmates who call her mother a “witch” or a “demon.” As a result of this bullying, Malaya comes to distrust the legends of her childhood. In this sense, the novel is also a coming-of-age narrative, as Malaya gradually comes to terms with the myths and legends that bind her family. In piecing together the story of her parents’ marriage, Malaya learns as much about herself as she does about her mother.
The narrative is not chronological, but instead meanders back and forth through time, peeling back the layers of Manolo and Tala’s relationship, from the early days of the marriage to Tala’s pregnancy. Scenes unfold like images from a dream, ushering in new characters with entirely different perspectives on the novel’s events. In Manlapaz, the truth is never set in stone. Rutledge’s fluid prose gracefully bends and twists reality, giving no preference to one perspective over another. Gradually, it becomes clear that the story is less interested in answering questions than asking them. As the novel progresses, past and present merge together, so that The Hour of Daydreams transcends the bonds of traditional fiction and begins to feel more like the myth it is based on.
In “The Star Maiden,” the Filipino folktale that inspired the novel, a hunter spies on a young woman bathing with her sisters in a magical river. After their swim, the women emerge from the water, put on massive white wings, and fly off into the sky. In order to keep the woman he loves from leaving, the hunter decides to hide one of her wings so she can’t fly. After her sisters leave, the hunter approaches the woman and pretends to offer help. She eventually comes home with him and becomes his wife. In Rutledge’s version of the tale, Manolo is a possessive husband, terrified that Tala will find a way to “fly away.” He’s convinced that Tala is no ordinary woman, but an angel who flew down from the sky. But is Tala really an angel, or is she just a girl who wishes to escape the dark world she was born into? Like all good fairytales, Rutledge’s novel resists easy summary, and Tala’s past remains ambiguous. When a mysterious man claiming to be Tala’s brother materializes, the truth only becomes further obscured.
There is something elegantly understated and delicate about The Hour of Daydreams. Rutledge is clearly a talented writer, with a unique skill for breathing life into everyday scenes. The novel’s strongest moments are those where her observational skills are on full display, such as when she captures the quiet harmony of an evening poker game or the vibrant energy of the town market. But it’s also clear that Rutledge has an innate sense of people, and how easily we can hurt the ones we love most. A powerful achievement, The Hour of Daydreams is a beautifully-written novel about marriage and deception.
The Hour of Daydreams, by Renee Macalino Rutledge. Portland, Oregon: Forest Avenue Press, March 2017. 230 pages. $15.95 pages.
Melissa McDaniel writes and lives in Brooklyn, New York. She is an editor for tNY Press, and her work has been published in Necessary Fiction, Psychopomp Magazine, Luna Station Quarterly, witch craft mag, Be About It Press, and elsewhere.