I first came across Patricia Engel last year when her story, 'Desaliento', won the Boston Review's annual prize for fiction. I enjoyed her unhurried storytelling and unfussy prose, and made a mental note to look out for more of her work.
The opportunity came via the latest email bulletin from the always worthwhile Guernica magazine. The current issue features 'Día', a beautifully observed vignette of an awkward encounter between two friends who could have been lovers but never were.
Unconsummated relationships are something of a motif in Engel's work, at least on the evidence of the pieces she has published online. 'Lucho', her earliest published fiction, is narrated by the teenage Sabina, whose grown-up voice we hear in 'Día': 'He was 16 and I was 14, which meant we could be friends on our block but had to ignore each other at school. He had squishy lips and a small round nose, smooth shiny skin and greasy dark hair. All the girls checked him out. But Lucho was kind of dirty for a town like ours.' In this story, tragedy intervenes, and is all the more affecting for the suddenness with which it interrupts the leisurely unfolding of what could otherwise be an unremarkable tale of adolescent infatuation.
Engel's knack of drawing the reader into the everyday world of her characters, then revealing in passing an incident that catches the reader unawares, is also evident in 'Prison Letters', an excerpt from which appears in Slice magazine: 'Victor would go on benders, disappear for days, but always turned up on Sunday mornings and went to mass with my mom even when he was still with his first wife, a Jewish girl named Rebecca who died before I had a chance to meet her. They were on the rocks and she was pregnant. She went to see her parents after a big fight with Victor and an eighteen-wheeler smashed into her Datsun on the Long Island Expressway. Victor blamed himself and jumped off the roof of his house but didn't get so much as a scratch.'
Is it fanciful to extrapolate from this a literary kinship between the Colombian-American Engel and Gabriel García Márquez? Perhaps. Engel is no magic realist, but she is a natural storyteller, and if I can risk invoking the name of another literary titan, she has something of Salinger's way with vernacular and feel for family relationships. Like both writers, she can also be very funny.
Patricia Engel is an exceptional talent, but as far as I know she has yet to be signed up by a publisher. It is surely only a matter of time.
- ▼ 2009 (14)