Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer
Jamie Figueroa's debut novel, Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer depicts the impact of trauma and loss within a family. Rufina and Rafa are half siblings in their late 20s who are trying to manage the recent loss of their mother, Rosalinda. Rufina harbors more anger toward her mother’s death, while Rafa’s depression consumes him to the brink of suicide. In efforts to try and save Rafa’s life, Rufina gets him to agree to perform for the white tourists who frequent their city of Ciudad de Tres Hermanas. Rufina seduces visitors with her songs that are heard as prayers, while Rafa confuses tourists by examining what the symbols of their shadows mean, a similar trait of their late mother’s. If they get enough money performing in one weekend, Rafa will live and start over. If not, he can do as he wishes.
Rufina is quite certain things will work in her favor, as the half siblings know about performing in front of a crowd. A man called the Explorer taught them how to lure and steal as children while he was seeing Rosalina and living in their home. The Explorer was a big talker (a well-traveled man who never actually traveled) and an even bigger drinker—“Big, tart wines that turned him into a raft of flesh, carried him out and away”—and who took advantage of the family in every way.
Throughout the story, we see Rufina’s distress is deeper than navigating the loss of their mother and helping Rafa live. She is also grieving the loss of her baby who did not survive birth, and the overwhelming guilt that has plagued her. The past clashes with the present inside the home where Rufina and Rafa now live alone, with unsettling memories and stubborn ghosts all around them. It can take a moment for the reader to catch up, to truly understand what is real and what is merely a memory, but one thing remains clear: Rufina and Rafa lived a hard life from childhood. The mother’s strange behavior of indecent exposure both inside and outside of the home, paired with the Explorer’s predator eyes for Rufina creates moments that are difficult to swallow.
Though the topics being discussed are hard and real, there is a certain fable quality to the book. An unknown narrator tells this story, holding our hand throughout and interjecting with phrases like, “remember this” to take note of important clues that help lead us on the way. The angel that appears from time to time adds this fairy tale feel too, with a continuous mission of helping those who need to be rescued.
Figueroa has a way with words. The prose is poetic, unique and engrossing—“The veins on Rufina’s neck are pulsing wires”—and oftentimes as magical as the story itself. It’s easy to get lost in the language and the story, both creating this dream-like caliber, but it can sometimes be challenging. The reader may float above the surface without always finding a way in. But that could be the intention. To swim over these uncharted waters and characters that are taught to mystify—“The trick is to make people wonder if you’re real”—to keep the outsiders far enough away. Perhaps we aren’t meant to see all that’s hidden underneath. Or maybe we need to look that much harder.