A Novelist Comes Home to Bury Her Words, and Brings Them Back to Life


The best stories live within us long after the final word; characters and places continue beyond the lines on a page. Yet the image of all the unfinished, unsatisfying, impossible stories we leave in our wakes haunts the writer as well as the reader. And with more than 20 books published across a three-decade career, no one may be haunted more than Julia Alvarez.

The hero of Alvarez’s seventh novel, Alma Cruz, is a writer from the Dominican Republic who has come to the United States and created a literary life, beginning with critically acclaimed books about the motherland and evolving into a chronicler of life in the U.S.A. (Longtime readers of Alvarez’s work will recognize her own trajectory, from her early classics like “How the García Girls Lost Their Accents” and “In the Time of the Butterflies” through poetry, memoir, children’s books and more.)

The famous author has always wrestled shadow and sunlight, laughter and agony, into tales that sometimes felt like ghost stories. Readers knew to seek the truths behind the narrative — to find sorrow in the funniest scenes, or the unexpected outburst of joy in a somber one. Of course, I am speaking about Alma Cruz. (But also, Julia Alvarez.)

One day, Alma decides she has had enough with the fame game, the big career and its ups and downs. She comes to a lovely conclusion: It is time to return to the homeland she fled, and she will take all the drafts of her unfinished or unpublished books and lay them to rest there, giving each a proper burial. She buys a plot of land and begins to build a graveyard.

The locals become a fantastic choir of curious, suspicious, baffled neighbors: One rumor has it that “the place will be a resort, which would provide employment for maids, gardeners, waiters, cooks, watchmen”; another imagines “a grand house, complete with a swimming pool, a tennis court, a mini putting green.” Still another posits, “A baseball academy would be a dream come true for the tigueritos roaming the streets. Keep them out of trouble.” But when they realize Alma is building a graveyard, the outburst is comedic: a cemetery! Fear of zombies immediately clashes with the fear of homeless people defecating in mausoleums — and what kinds of jobs, by the way, are there in a boneyard? They have more reckoning to do when they realize Alma intends to put her stories in the ground, literally.

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