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The Storyteller's Death


The Storyteller's Death

Award-winning author Ann Dávila Cardinal’s THE STORYTELLER’S DEATH is a gorgeous, emotionally resonant and culturally relevant family saga about a young woman’s inherited gift, which may be a curse.

The child of a Puerto Rican woman and a white, American man, Isla Larsen has always been split between worlds. Every summer, she and her mother leave New Jersey to visit her maternal grandparents, aunts and uncles on the beautiful island of Puerto Rico. But it is not until the tragic death of her father after an illness that Isla comes to find the island a refuge. While Isla’s mother buries her grief in a bottle of Bacardi, neglecting her daughter’s own healing in the process, Isla makes trips to the island alone.

Although her grandmother is the family’s matriarch, Isla’s constant companion in Puerto Rico is her great-aunt Alma, a domineering but maternal woman who seems to intuit the neglect that Isla has been dealing with and shows her the stability and routine she needs as a young child facing a world of change. With her Tío Ramón next door and cousins running in and out of the house and courtyard, Isla’s life here is fuller and richer than anything she has experienced in New Jersey. But it is not all joyous and bright.

"Both a riveting murder mystery and a searing, powerful story of legacy and inheritance, THE STORYTELLER’S DEATH is as rich as the stories it comprises, full of lush, vivid settings and poignant, relatable character arcs."

For as long as she can remember, there has always been some old woman dying in the back room of her uncle’s house. His wife, Lourdes, is a former nurse, so care for infirmed family members falls to her. Over time, Isla learns to ignore these women and their smells of antiseptic, metal and sweat. But as she grows up and her relatives age, the bodies start to become familiar and even beloved. When her stubborn, cold grandmother dies when Isla is 18, these deaths take on a new meaning.

A heralded cuentista (storyteller), Isla’s grandmother has long dazzled and bewitched the family's children with her stories, so immersive and compelling that they seem to consume and transform the room. But her most frequently told tale recounts the day that monkeys escaped from a local zoo, and she watched as uniformed men struggled to capture them. As a child, she rooted for the monkeys and even believed that she shared a secret alliance with one of them. Isla is shocked when, shortly after her grandmother’s funeral, she hears skittering on the roof and sees an image of her grandmother hiding in the bushes, watching as long-tailed monkeys race across the roof and tree canopy.

Isla brushes off the event as a dream or fit of stress, but the vision repeats night after night…until she writes it down, including the details that have been revealed to her for the first time, never before included in her grandmother’s telling. When a new body occupies and then departs the back room, another vision appears to Isla, this one of a devastating hurricane and starring a relative she never even knew. With each death of a woman in Isla’s family, a new vision appears, and for a while Isla is content to be the recorder of her family’s stories. But as the visions take on new power, becoming tangible and even painful, a devastating loss pushes Isla into her most traumatic vision yet.

With the power of storytelling, the legacy of inheritance, and her detective and investigative skills, Isla sets out to learn the truth about her family once and for all. But the visions are just the start of her family’s stories. As she digs deeper into their history, she discovers disturbing patterns of colorism and classism, all while a forbidden romance and a political uprising simmer in the background of her waking life.

Both a riveting murder mystery and a searing, powerful story of legacy and inheritance, THE STORYTELLER’S DEATH is as rich as the stories it comprises, full of lush, vivid settings and poignant, relatable character arcs. But even more impressive is the way that Cardinal weaves in timely and thought-provoking themes of race and class. Although many American readers may be quick to cast Isla’s family as all Puerto Rican and therefore all unified, they --- and their neighborhood --- have been torn apart by prejudices informed by skin tone and wealth. Their inability to reckon with these truths has dangerous, lasting repercussions that both date back to their earliest ancestors and reach painfully forward for the new generation, including Isla.

As Isla discovers and grapples with these truths, Cardinal sets her off on a touching coming of age that will tug at any reader’s heart. While this part of the story feels a bit overwritten, the murder-mystery plotline and magical elements help keep the novel on track. THE STORYTELLER’S DEATH will be a hit with book club readers who love sweeping generational sagas without the length.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on October 28, 2022

The Storyteller's Death
by Ann Dávila Cardinal