To live in oppressive times is a kind of emotional suffocation, a constricting of freedom that applies both to the confines of your country, and the limitations of your hope. The Art of White Roses, winner of the 2017 CODE Burt Award for Caribbean Young Adult Literature, explores what it means to feel like a prisoner in your own island, and what it means to grow hope in a seemingly barren place.
The time is 1957. The place is Marianao, Cuba, and the US-backed Batista regime is a heavy boot on the populace: university students are disappearing; eyes are averted from terrible goings-on; corruption becomes synonymous with daily bread. Thirteen year old Adela Santiago witnesses it all: that which she understands, that which she doesn’t. She plays dominoes with her brother Pingüino, makes ropa vieja with her mother before sunrise on Sundays, writes about José Martí at her schooldesk: all of these seem like signposts of a normal life, but Adela knows better. She knows about los desaparecidos. She pays attention, and senses Cuba is on the brink of something explosive and dangerous: something that gleams with the fire of revolution.
Prado-Núñez gives us a capsule of society in the Santiago clan: a supposedly conventional nuclear family made of hardworking parents; an eccentric grandfather; precocious yet dutiful offspring. So much of The Art of White Roses‘ storytelling strength lies in a series of subversions: the author’s treatment of family loyalty and complexity might be its crowning, subversive gem. In carefully-drawn, sensitive examinations of familial devotion, treachery and trauma, Prado-Núñez assembles for her reader a palette of human cynicism and optimism at its finest, and its most intense.
At the centre of this domestic diorama stands Adela, a protagonist who summons empathy and affinity, a weather vane of conscience in troubled times, an archivist whose love for her Cuba provides some of the book’s most memorable lines:
“It came to me so vividly, the Havana of my mind. I could taste the salt of the popcorn burning my tongue, could smell the heavy sweat-scent of the ocean. That Havana was mine, and it would always be mine, except it wasn’t.”
What a narrative triumph Prado-Núñez presents for us, this fragmented, faithful ode to a place caught in the crossfires of toxic rule and feverish change, a suburb of Havana where a girl dreams in a blue house, feeling the world shift beneath her feet, feeling herself change, in unavoidably bittersweet response.