Cinelle Barnes is a creative non-fiction writer and educator from Manila, Philippines. She writes memoirs and personal essays on trauma, growing up in Southeast Asia, and on being a mother and immigrant in America.
Publisher’s Description: Told with a lyrical, almost-dreamlike voice as intoxicating as the moonflowers and orchids that inhabit this world, Monsoon Mansion is a harrowing yet triumphant coming-of-age memoir exploring the dark, troubled waters of a family’s rise and fall from grace in the Philippines. It would take a young warrior to survive it.
Cinelle Barnes was barely three years old when her family moved into Mansion Royale, a stately ten-bedroom home in the Philippines. Filled with her mother’s opulent social aspirations and the gloriously excessive evidence of her father’s self-made success, it was a girl’s storybook playland. But when a monsoon hits, her father leaves, and her mother’s terrible lover takes the reins, Cinelle’s fantastical childhood turns toward tyranny she could never have imagined. Formerly a home worthy of magazines and lavish parties, Mansion Royale becomes a dangerous shell of the splendid palace it had once been.
In this remarkable ode to survival, Cinelle creates something magical out of her truth—underscored by her complicated relationship with her mother. Through a tangle of tragedy and betrayal emerges a revelatory journey of perseverance and strength, of grit and beauty, and of coming to terms with the price of family—and what it takes to grow up.
Possible spoilers beyond this point.
Agent Annie says…
My April “Kindle First” book choice was fantastic. Monsoon Mansion is a memoir that immerses you in the life of the author as a child.
I hardly knew anything about the Philippines before reading the book other than the name of Imelda Marcos and her huge shoe collection. I shouldn’t have been surprised by the disparity between the wealthy and the impoverished in yet another “third” world country, but the author vividly describes the differences between her own family’s life and privileges and the abject poverty of the servants’ village life and the misery in Manila outside her gates.
I still marvel at the author’s ability to put perspective on her mother’s behavior. Barnes describes the relationship in a poignant scene in the final chapter as she answers her own daughter’s questions.
…Then she asks, “Mama, do you miss your mama?”
“I do, but it’s better to miss her than to be around her.”
“Because she does things that hurt people?”
That’s how I’ve explained it to her: that my mother cannot come near us because she does regrettable things.
Barnes’ mother was a true nightmare, but her father, whose choice to abandon the family brings about the depraved situation the author grows up in, is portrayed so richly that the reader fully understands the complexity of his thought process and the details of his personality, and it’s easy to understand why he made the choices he did and that he was truly trying to do what was best in the scope of his own human weakness.
Barnes writes in such a way that the mansion itself and the weather are also characters that play a role in her childhood. The deteriorating mansion is a symbol of her mother’s decay, but it has its own characteristics and can haunt or protect the children. It’s described in such rich detail that I feel if I walked in the front door, I would recognize it immediately. The monsoon that is the catalyst to her father leaving, also provides the author with a glimpse of the freedom brought by big water. It’s such an interesting parallel to explore the flood waters and forever after be drawn to the ocean.
This book is definitely a 5 and I look forward to reading more of Cinelle Barnes’ work.
A powerful and haunting novel of a woman’s broken past and the painful choices she must make to keep her family and her home.
Publisher’s Description: August 1956. After a night of rage and terror, Anna Nassad wakes to find her abusive husband dead and instinctively hides her bruises and her relief. As the daughter of Syrian immigrants living in segregated Alabama, Anna has never belonged, and now her world is about to erupt.
Days before, Anna set in motion an explosive chain of events by allowing the first black postman to deliver the mail to her house. But it’s her impulsive act of inviting him inside for a glass of water that raises doubts about Anna’s role in her husband’s death.
As threats and suspicions arise in the angry community, Anna must confront her secrets in the face of devastating turmoil and reconcile her anguished relationship with her daughter. Will she discover the strength to fight for those she loves most, even if it means losing all she’s ever known?
Possible spoilers beyond this point.
Agent Annie says…
I enjoyed this story since it offered a glimpse into a little-known part of US history. I’ve never thought about how Arab immigrants would have fit into the Jim Crow South and the unique struggles the families would have as to their status in society.
I was drawn to the main character, Anna, who struggled with being different her whole life. I also thought the author did a great job explaining what caused Anna to make certain choices and why those choices had so much impact on those around her. The loss of her mother at an early age affected Anna and created far-reaching implications that will still be felt in the generations yet to be born.
I give this book 4 stars. I wanted to give it 5 stars, but there were just a few editing errors that were noticeable enough to cause me to “fall out of the story” and take notice, but not enough to keep me from recommending it to others.