Monday, July 15, 2013

Book Review: Loteria

Loteria: A Novel
By: Mario Alberto Zambrano
Published by: Harper
Release date: July 2, 2013
Genre: literary fiction
288 pages
Source: ARC kindly provided by publisher

One of my favorite things about blogging is the opportunity to experience different kinds of literature, discovering things I love in books that are out of my usual vein of reading. I like getting to stretch, using some of of my literary training for fun rather than work. Loteria was a quick read, but since it's not my usual YA, it was a literary exercise, which I enjoyed.

In the garden of literature, Loteria is an onion: There are so many layers to consider. Some are sweet, and some will make you cry. All are to be savored.

Luz, the eleven-year-old protagonist, is loved by her family- but sometimes that family doesn't express anger or frustration in healthy ways. She doesn't understand some events in her world; the reader has to read between the lines for her. Her innocence makes her willing to forgive, and sometimes participate in, inappropriate activities around her. She trusts and accepts their collective dysfunction. It is sometimes heartbreaking to read her descriptions of terrible events, then justify the actions of her loved ones.  The heartbreak comes from having either experienced these things, or having known someone who has; the universality of many of these events highlights the realism of this story, told through a deck of Loteria cards.

The literary device, telling the story through the Loteria cards, is poetic genius. In playing the game, the cards are announced by calling a riddle that corresponds with the object on the card. Each chapter in the book opens with a card, and what follows is a vignette from Luz's life that corresponds- her version of a "riddle." She links each card to a piece of her story, and it isn't until all of the cards have been played that we can truly see the whole picture. I think that using the cards not only gives the story structure, but also lends a realistic quality to the pre-adolescent narrator. Who hasn't seen a child, alone, playing with the pieces of a game meant to be played by a group? Children often use such a device to story-tell, whether it's a group of dolls, or toy trucks, or cards.

This book is rich with cultural allusion, yet isn't unapproachable for those who are not Hispanic. There are references to foods and traditions that are part of Luz's world, as well as family interactions. Everything was explained in a way that enhanced my understanding of not only the plot, but also of Hispanic heritage. Spanish phrases are sprinkled throughout the dialog, though never too many to impede a non-speaker from understanding what is going on. At first I was using a translator to find out what I was missing, but I soon realized that all of the really important stuff was in English. I learned to let the language carry me with it, and infer from context.

Reading Loteria was a lovely, contemplative experience. If you decide to pick it up, be sure to give it some real time and brain space so you can enjoy it fully.

A young girl tells the story of her family's tragic demise using a deck of cards of the eponymous Mexican game in this spellbinding debut novel that marks the arrival of a powerhouse new talent.

With her older sister Estrella in the ICU and her father in jail, eleven-year-old Luz Castillo has been taken into the custody of the state. Alone in her room, the young girl retreats behind a wall of silence, writing in her journal and shuffling through a deck of Lotería cards-a Mexican version of bingo featuring bright, colorful images.

Neither the social worker assigned to her case nor her Aunt Tencha, who desperately pleads for her niece's release, can cajole Luz to speak. The young girl's only confidant is her journal. Within its pages, Luz addresses an invisible higher power, sharing her secrets.

Using the Lotería cards as her muse, Luz picks one card from the deck with each shuffle. Each of the cards' colorful images- mermaids, bottles, spiders, death, and stars-sparks a random memory. Pieced together, these snapshots bring into focus the joy and pain of the young girl's life, and the events that led to her present situation. But just as the story becomes clear, a breathtaking twist changes everything.

A surprising, spellbinding tale richly imaginative and atmospheric, Lotería is an exquisite debut novel from an outstanding new voice in fiction.


  1. Honestly, I'm a bit of a pansy about difficult reads (not the ones with challenging words, but the ones with sad events). This one sounds so well done though, I might have to give it a try anyway.

  2. DoingDewey, I encourage you to- if for no other reason, to see how the point of view is handled in this one. He tells terrible stories through an innocent narrator in a way that is just beautiful.


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