In Wendy Guerra’s writing, Cuba is a character, a cosmic force, the loneliest place, the only place. Her third novel, I Was Never the First Lady, stitches together threads of island and identity until they become one and the same ... If these signs suggest autofiction, Guerra’s collagelike style firmly bucks any genre. She integrates poems, song lyrics, radio scripts, letters, narrative within narrative, diary entries and notes, all coming together to form a whole ... haunting and complicated, linguistically beautiful yet labyrinthine. It builds a world of living ghosts and opens a chasm of aching as much for the things that are present as for those that have disappeared.
Except for Castro, Sánchez, and Che Guevara, the historical names that populate these pages will probably be unfamiliar to most American readers. Nevertheless, readers will get a peek at everyday life in Cuba after 60 years under Castro, but (like Cubans themselves) can only speculate about the country’s future, as the novel concludes with Castro’s death.
What begins as one fictional Cuban woman’s examination of her personal life expands into a broader, deeper consideration of what it means to be Cuban, both for those who left since Castro took power and for those who stayed ... the similarities between author and character feel purposeful ... Guerra’s novel is a grand if bittersweet valentine to Cuba, and maybe her mother.