First published in the US in 2008, Rachel Kushner’s debut novel, Telex from Cuba, finally got its UK release this year. For whatever reason, the publishers decided to hold back this story set among the changing political fortunes of 1950s Cuba, as President Carlos Prío is ousted by the dictator, Batista, and Fidel Castro gathers his revolutionary forces.
Despite its setting, this novel is not about the political intrigue of the time. Instead, Kushner uses the scheming and conspiracies as a mechanism to drive her own plot. She presents the manoeuvring and strategies of Cuban revolutionaries, foreign coup conspirators and American businesses through a variety of narrators, but mainly through the eyes of children who don’t have the adults’ prejudices or vested interests.
KC Stites is the son of an American sugar plantation boss whose older son has ran off to fight with the Castro brothers. KC has a crush on a book-loving, bespectacled girl called Everly Lederer, who has a crush of her own, on one of the young black servants.
The children appear to have the best of all worlds as they enjoy running around in the wild tropics then cooling off with iced drinks in their luxurious homes. But this is no YA adventure novel either. The themes of class distinction, racism and idealism are dealt with seriously and with depth, and told with a prose that will take you straight to the coast of Cuba:
‘The air had an underwater cast to it, a greenish-blue that laved over them as they moved through the thick humidity, up the gangplank and onto the ship. She looked out to where the sea’s horizon met the watermelon sky. Already she felt closer to this mysterious place, the tropics.’
It’s clear Kushner has thoroughly researched this novel, and sometimes – but only occasionally – she shows us how much: ‘Fourteen thousand cane cutters. Eight hundred fifty railcars … our own airstrip. Two company DC-3s, a Lockheed Lodestar and Daddy’s Cessna Bobcat…’ But, on the whole, she manages to expertly weave the historical details with an intriguing plot through complex characters and provocative themes.
Any cop? Telex from Cuba is part coming-of-age story, part noir thriller, all mixed up with a little bit of soap opera. The novel’s split personality can make it difficult to stay focused, but persevere through its eccentricities to find an imaginative yet realistic account of this fascinating time and place. But maybe you’ve read the US version at some point in the last six years and already know that.