It’s a steady voice and a well-articulated narrative that Mignon Bravo Dutt banners in her debut novel, The Rosales House, published and recently released by Penguin Random House Southeast Asia. Early in the story-telling, the reader is treated to prose that is exact and deft of tone.
“Claire stepped out and walked carefully past flowers and wreaths to a clear patch that provided a view of the field below the cemetery. Wind-swept corn crops ran parallel to the river, a tributary of the Cagayan River. The sun cast arrows across the water. Soon these would be reduced to shorter darts as morning turned into afternoon. Claire squinted to avoid the sun’s glare. Tears flowed but she wiped them off surreptitiously. She raised her face to stem the tears and saw the leaves above her swaying gently.”
The surefooted passage is equaled in early exposition that involves principal characters.
“While the decor and scent played a role, Claire knew that the residents’ state of mind had a greater impact on the house’s ambience. While they had disagreements every now and then like any other couple, they tended to resolve them peacefully, minus the shouting and drama. If there was anything she could change about her parents, it would be for Dino to be more outspoken in public so that people would learn just how smarter he was. As for Anna, Claire sometimes wished for her to start reading more noteworthy books and to get more interested in the arts.”
Nearing 30, Claire is employed at an advertising company in Singapore. At the outset, her beloved grandmother’s sudden demise draws her back to a town in Northern Philippines where her clan has held supreme for generations.
An uncle is a Congressman, his wife the mayor, a son in the town council. Typical of powerful clans in her home country, marital unions are arranged with equally privileged families. And overseeing all this in recent years has been the grandmother Gloria, who had fawned on her favorite grandchild, Claire.
The Rosaleses maintain a mansion in the middle of town. Known as “the Rosales house,” it’s also the stronghold for political activities. Claire’s parents (her father Dino is younger brother to current kingpin Ric, the congressman) have their own residence, and also care for a large farm in a paradisiacal setting. The Rosaleses have it good, with the younger generation taking pride in the fact that their vaunted surname has never been tainted by any scandal.
On her next visit home well after the funeral, Claire is told of a family secret that was overseen and kept that way by her Lola Gloria. It devastates her. And she proceeds to unravel answers to painful questions.
But in increasingly large chunks, there is too much dialogue that doesn’t really advance the narrative, which stalls on occasion on account of the quotidian minutiae that only seem to fill up apparent memoir sections beholden to certain places the author has visited. Conversations run through a repetitive, mundane series of coffee dates, museum visits and dinner and drinks shared with the characters that are closest to Claire.
Excursions to far-away Amsterdam and neighboring Bintang Island don’t really add anything to the progression of character relations. Nor does anything dramatic occur in these episodes. Well, somehow it’s in Amsterdam when Claire flashbacks to a failed relationship. But for the most part, the gallivanting only details the travel privileges enjoyed by Claire, her colleagues and relations. So they keep jetting from Singapore to Manila and back, then to Manhattan and California, meeting up at food places and touring museums, all the while that Claire tries to make sense of family relations.
Even the gustatory experiences become tedious, since they don’t rise as epiphanies, as in novels that have used food as effective metaphor.
It takes another long span before another dramatic confrontation occurs, between Claire and the person she most loathes. This is handled well, mostly through strong dialogue. But it seems too little too late for advancing conflict and release, not to mention any epiphany, since the moments of drama are much too scarce, even given the novel’s decent length (at 198 pages).
What also strikes me as an incomprehensible weakness is the evident decision to keep the central character as virtuous as possible in those pages where she finally engages in romance. Okay, she’s suffered a previous heartbreak that led to a canceled wedding. It takes her several years before she finally develops feelings for another Filipino, whose talent as a big-time screenwriter has kept him traveling, and seeing Claire every now and then.
The reader senses that Claire will eventually wind up with this man, even if it takes too many pages where they just enjoy coffee and ice cream. Josh’s witty conversation finally wins Claire, so that they spend more time together, traveling over the author’s seemingly personal map. But he just keeps kissing her on the forehead when they have to part. And even when a passage hints that they could now be rooming together, not a single embrace or real kiss transpires.
I don’t know, it’s not exactly porn or any purple-prose crescendo that’s missing, but Claire comes across as an antiseptic character despite her intense struggles with all the questions about her identity, heritage, motherhood.
It’s a pity, since the author can draw us in when it comes to depicting hometowns, work environment, personal relations and family values. But the narrative could be richer with cycles of highs and lows in the telling. Too steadfast a course of dispassionate narration flattens the peaks and valleys that could highlight moments of drama.
It’s also unfortunate that despite her own heritage, the Filipino author seemed unaware of what’s called “the Rosales saga” — a series of novels by a familiar name in Philippine literature. Otherwise, she might have chosen a different surname for the eponymous clan.
Still and all, it’s quite an achievement as a first novel. We must congratulate Mignon Bravo Dutt for her breakthrough as an internationally published author.