El Pombero! is a short novel about loss and healing that had a very good premise and tantalizing storyline; but ultimately suffered from very little emotional pay-off and an abrupt ending to a story that was just beginning.
It begins with a woman named Heather at the bedside of her client, who is anxiously waiting for both a bone marrow transport and the arrival of her brother from another country – both of which have required a long journey to accomplish and a lot of work by all involved. The scene is quickly and meticulously laid out to set the mood in the room; but puzzling in the details like the arrival of the brother who is described so well the reader thinks they need to visualize and remember this man (yet his sister the patient has no details) but we never see him or his sister again, instead the narrator suffers sharp sudden pains and faints…close scene and chapter.
She next wakes up in a haze with a man named Hal hovering in concern, he is briefly described as having a ‘perfectly chiseled body’ under his clothes which alarmed me very much a) because I really hoped this wouldn’t be one of those kinds of books and b) who is Hal? Heather fades again as she recovers from what we now know was a miscarriage. I am still a bit confused wondering all sorts of things: is she being bamboozled somehow? Did she know she was pregnant? Did she hit her stomach on something in chapter one? Did the arrival of the brother in scene one have something to do with it? All these fears were false, it was a straight-forward miscarriage she suffered, but Heather recognizes a deep sense of relief and feels guilty. This I think is probably a real thing women endure but can’t really ‘talk about’ so I appreciated recognizing that my protagonist is a real person with complex emotions about life.
When Heather awakens next at home the reader is introduced to her small daughter and Hal who is her husband and you finally realize this quick succession of events is all a brief introduction to her life. At this point I could see this playing well as a TV show, and thought the fade in and out was a decent beginning to the story – but could have used some fleshing out of events to keep the reader filled in, while adding backstory at the same time. In the following chapters this filling in of backstory with sprinklings of daily life is done quite decently.
The author has a very pleasing way of describing places and the character’s inner monologue and the reader is taken easily into Heather’s past to glimpse scenes that make her who she is. A sample sentence I liked: “I tracked them [clouds], considering my life, and allowing the confused jumble of thoughts to filter through my mind like puffs of city smoke, leaving behind a patina of patterns I tried to decipher.”
At some point though, taking into consideration the very short nature of the book, the backstory of Heather’s childhood is moot information.
After all, all Heather’s doing right now in the present is recovering at home on the couch and getting up the nerve to go to Venezuela for a week with her best friend Jay, whose brother Simon mysteriously died in a paragliding accident just recently.
Simon’s death is tragic and so out of left field, and something feels off about it to both of them. Simon had just learned that a woman he’d had an affair with birthed a child, so he’d flown to Caracas to meet his child, and also within days of doing so para-glided off the top of Angel Falls and died. Who does that??
Heather was incapacitated, very understandably, and missed the funeral so she feels she can’t say no to Jay despite Caracas being an extremely dangerous city in the throes of civil uproars and violence. Heather, because of circumstances in her life long before meeting Jay, never says no to a plea for help. I thought this was a tease to the reader that we would learn more about this character trait; she is described as, “Today, when you say, ‘Heather I need you,’ I generally come.” I thought this would be expanded upon at some point but it wasn’t, this sort of became a pattern in El Pombero!
So, Heather’s mother comes to stay with her daughter to help her recover (and again when Heather leaves for South America), and Heather has had a complicated relationship with her mother who was a bohemian hippie type living and raising Heather in SoHo NYC, but was decidedly less hippie-ish when it came to Heather marrying a black man. The author does a bit of exploration here about mixed race marriages and the protagonist realizing her parents were more talking the talk than walking the walk when it came to racism – yet her mother’s behavior came down to awkward yet well-meaning ‘white people’ blunders at family gatherings that didn’t really hurt anyone. I didn’t really get that Heather’s mother was prejudiced, and Heather’s recollections of growing up while again, interesting and pertinent didn’t give me much of an impression. I found it hard to believe that her parents would actually go on a zillion marches and bus rides or whatever for equality, but then look the other way when a blind black guy was getting buffeted by sliding doors on a train. The complexities of toeing the line between black and white relationships is definitely interesting and worth exploring, unfortunately it’s never mentioned again in the novel.
When Heather and Jay get to Caracas they brave the social unrest to find the mother of Simon’s child, incidentally Jay says afterwards with a stony face that ‘isn’t his brother’s child’ he is certain, and no mention is ever given again to that angle, he just knows it. They journey to Angel Falls and Jay barely makes it because he’s psychologically having a difficult time, naturally, with the loss of his brother. The journey, by the way is a tour guided in which you: sleep in huts with mosquito net savvy beds, swim in sweet lagoons, and locals make you indigenous foods that Heather is used to because of when her Argentinian family used to visit kind of tour. What??
Jay brings along with them a tiny doll called El Pombero bought from the gift shop. The employee warned them if they hear a whistle in the woods not to return the whistle. Heather knows this is because of the local legend that the El Pombero, who is a particularly terrifying little beast by the way, will come and basically do you dirty. The book explains one of it’s more curious traits is to impregnate a woman with only the touch of a hand. I later read elsewhere the El Pombero is definitely a rapist. It’s also horrifying in appearance.
So Jay bought the doll a bit on a whim, though the silly superstition does occur to them that Simon was there before them, and harm befell him. The night they get to Angel Falls the indigenous community is there with the small tour group at the campfire telling legends and stories, Heather is especially touched by a mother soothing her child. Then, a whistle from the woods! Jay whistles back!! That’s it I thought, the wrath of El Pombero is coming down on them like the falls themselves, El Pombero clearly had something to do with Simon’s mysterious death too no doubt. Well, we’ll see.
When Heather and Jay see the falls in person, Jay is able to reconcile himself to the truth of his brother’s untimely and sad death, and experiences the healing he needed. Seeing this Heather is overjoyed for him, and she too feels a healing inside. I thought she was literally pregnant for a minute because she feels this healing unflowering inside her.
Cut to the plane ride back to Caracas, again El Pombero almost strikes! I thought, but everyone thankfully makes it home safely to New York City. Her family is waiting for her, and her mother, and a special surprise that ties in the theme of loss and brothers in a separate plot point I skipped for now so that I didn’t spoil THE ENTIRE THING, but…that’s it that’s the end of the book.
I was really bewildered that it was over, that it was a simple short story of healing that just – happened. They made a trip and felt better. The end. I felt disappointed by the lack of closure in several respects, the child not being Simon’s, the death of Simon, El Pombero itself.
I really feel like this novel could be fleshed out fully to much much greater potential. The author once in her groove, tells a story easily and it really flows. Two very short chapters that could use a little fine tuning lead to a nice narration of events that never feels too boring, and includes many, many clever similes and finely turned descriptive sentences. I’d read from this author again, even this same story, only I’d like to read more of it.