They’re not for sale
There’s a pull quote on both the front and back cover of Joy Castro’s new short story collection How Winter Began from American Book Award winning author Sandra Cisneros which in its entirety reads, “Joy Castro’s writing is like watching an Acapulco cliff diver. It takes my breath away every time.” Yes, but no. Cisneros isn’t wrong per se, but she has failed to adequately convey the full effect that the power of Castro’s words can have on an unsuspecting reader. Watching implies that you’re standing a safe distance away from the action. There’s nothing even remotely safe about Joy Castro’s writing. You may be emotionally harmed by these stories. You will be changed by them. That’s their purpose. That’s her gift.
The twenty-plus tales contained in Winter are primarily presented from the point of view of Latina protagonists, thematically speaking however their link isn’t gender or race, but rather how commercialism distorts our world view, obscuring the more important things in our lives—family bonds, friendship, love—and how societal pressures and expectations place enormous, almost impossible weights upon our shoulders. There are fractured families on display here. There are single mothers. There is poverty. There is pain. But it’s how people respond to life’s difficult situations that fascinates Castro most. She’s not the least bit content with what’s on the surface because she knows it’s a reflection of how the world expects us to appear and act. Instead she fearlessly dives head first (yes, here like an Acapulco cliff diver) into the head space of her troubled subjects, providing readers with an all-access pass into their most intimate thoughts, fears, motivations, and desires.
I hated Queen for a Day; it was dumb. Aunt Ofelia never talked about what happened afterwards. She never acknowledged that the woman—the winner, the queen!—would have to hand back her crown and her robe. (I wondered if they cried again.) And then she’d have to return to her life. With a new washing machine, sure, but still: her life—the life so terrible strangers had clapped hard for her. There she’d be, back in her flowered housedress with the kids screaming and the bills unpaid. A day only lasted so long.
The results of her efforts are mesmerizing. In story after story Castro will break your heart and mercilessly stomp on it, but over and over again you’ll pick up the pieces and let her continue because you simply cannot turn away, in part because her protagonists are authentic, because their pain is universal, because their lives could so easily be your own, but perhaps most importantly because for as much darkness as she’s able to conjure up, she possesses an equally unique knack for subtly celebrating life’s small victories.
I’m stumped. There is no adequate way for me to end this review. I could tell you that in the perfectly crafted The Taste Castro dedicates exactly one-and-half pages to evoking an emotional response so visceral that you’ll feel physically unwell afterwards because of the sad truths that it exposes. I could warn you that you will cry at the end of The Pottery Barn and The Foster Child (trust me, it’s not optional) because deep down inside, no matter who we are or where we come from, we all desperately crave the same exact thing. I could point to The River and Liking it Rough as two examples of how Castro flat out nails anguish from two very different and very unexpected perspectives. I could go story by story and describe to you how unbelievably beautiful each is and why, but ultimately, much like life, this collection is something you need to experience first-hand to truly appreciate.
These aren’t just stories. These are realities.
Notable Selections: The Taste, The Pottery Barn and the Foster Child, Liking it Rough, The River, How to Warp Your Kid, Dinner, Under Things