Review of At the Narrow Waist of the World
A Galaxy of Family
I loved this book from the very first chapter, when the narrator’s mother Julita is introduced under the shade of a calabash tree in 1950’s Panama. A beautiful woman, glamorous as a movie star, Julita has recently undergone psychiatric treatment. She suffers from severe anxiety and worries that the maids in her home have poisoned her food. Her seven-year old daughter, Marlena, tries to tell her that there is no poison. “Pruebelo,” the mother says, meaning, prove it. Unbelievably, Julita asks her child to taste food she believes is deadly poison! The narrator then writes: “Good little girl that I am, I taste the bitter truth.” How does a child cope with a truth this bitter? Author Marlena Maduro Baraf offers up the answer: family. For Baraf, family is always the through-line, always the source of her considerable strength. Hers is a close-knit family, dwelling near each other, in some cases in an apartment owned by members of the family. As Jews in Catholic Panama, they are a minority. At one point, Marlena wants to become a Catholic, until a kindly priest reminds her that she also has a beautiful tradition in Judaism. As Marlena matures, she experiences sad losses and additional challenges with Julita. To say more would spoil the story, but I’ll reveal that at fifteen Marlena travels to the United States for boarding school. This compelling, poignant memoir balances sadness with humorous character sketches and reminiscences of happy family times. It is told in fresh, original prose that approaches poetry, spare yet rich, full of music and sense imagery. When you read Baraf’s words you hear the music, taste the food, feel the emotion within her. An occasional Spanish phrase adds flavor and authenticity. As you read, you’ll want to pause at the fascinating family photographs of Grandfather Jicky’s fairy tale castle, of Aunt Esther’s native dress, the pollera, and of Julita, magnificent in evening dress.