The history of Cuba, its revolution and its people is rife with complexity – too often reduced to images of Fidel Castro, T-shirts bearing Che Guevara’s image, and the ignorant refrain that tourists should visit the country before its time capsule sensibility stemming from a decades long trade embargo is “ruined.” For Cubans, particularly Cuban Americans who have sought refuge in the United States waiting for the day they might return, this is a painfully reductive approach to their identity, their country, and their experiences. How lucky we are then to have Chanel Cleeton’s Next Year in Havana, a sweeping love story and tale of courage and familial and patriotic legacy that spans generations.
The novel alternates between Elisa Perez in 1958, a wealthy sugar heiress living on the precipice of revolution in Cuba, and her granddaughter Marisol in the present day as she travels to Havana to spread her grandmother’s ashes and uncovers family secrets in the process. Both women grapple with what it means to be Cuban, how to love one’s country when it becomes unrecognizable, and the challenge of choosing between what is easy and what is right.
Marisol must untangle her romanticized view of Cuba, culled from stories told by her grandmother of a land frozen in time, when faced with the modern-day truths of a country that she describes as a place of “harsh reality and relentless struggle.” The child of Cuban immigrants herself, Cleeton draws on her own family history to write movingly of coming to know a country that has only existed for you in stories and traditions. She uses two love stories and tales of women falling for revolutionaries – men who are intoxicating in their passion and their courage to fight for a better future – to try to unpack the very complicated subject of identity politics. Both Marisol and Elisa learn to see beyond the vision of Cuba that exists in their privileged world, reaching a new understanding of themselves and their heritage through the perilous path of falling in love during a time of great upheaval.
Cleeton writes with a crisp inferiority, building swift bonds between the reader and both heroines as their own growing pains mirror that of the country they deeply love. Her details of Havana, both in 1958 and today, leap off the page so that one can envision every moment from sparkling beaches to the crashing of waves against a stone wall to the scents and flavors of countless traditional Cuban dishes. Her world breathes with all the color and complexity of the people and places of which she writes so lovingly. The novel possesses a heady atmosphere tinged with romanticism and nostalgia, while also remaining remarkably circumspect about the tumultuous and complicated truths of Cuban history and politics.
This book is about the courage and inevitable loss of love – what it means to love a man, one’s family, and one’s country in spite of all their imperfections, or perhaps, because of them. Cleeton’s own family history makes the story feel like she has offered up a piece of her heart on a platter. Her own palpable yearning, frustration, and confusion bleeds across every page as she tells the story of a people caught between those who have lived in exile for decades and those who have stayed to face what comes whether by choice or necessity. She writes with the poignant empathy of one who has lived surrounded by the peculiar blend of hope, anger, patriotism, cynicism, and love that beats at the heart of the narrative.
Cleeton leaves a few too many loose ends as she sets up for a 2019 sequel, but it lands because it reads as an inevitability – life, the story of Cuba and its people, the hope of the exiled in their resounding toast that lends the novel its title – all of those things are unfinished stories waiting to have more pages written. In a story that captures the intimate heartbreak in the ripple effect of revolution and exile, Cleeton claws at unknowable questions within us all – while still painting a specific and vivid picture of what it means to be a citizen borne up by a complicated past while hoping for a better future. A-