Camila is haunted by the death of her sister, Marisol, who was caught by a mudslide during the huracán. Unable to part with Marisol, Camila carries her through town, past the churchyard, and, eventually, to the supposed utopia of Memoria. Urayoán, the idealistic, yet troubled cult leader of Memoria, has a vision for this new society, one that in his eyes is peaceful and democratic. But as the different members of Memoria navigate Urayoán's fiery rise, they will need to confront his violent authoritarian impulses in order to find a way to reclaim their home.
Velorio is an ambitious, movingly lyrical debut novel from Xavier Navarro Aquino that looks at the real-life tragedy of Hurricane Maria's impact on Puerto Rico through a grief-soaked, phantasmagorical lens ... While Urayoán's paradise follows a familiar course, becoming increasingly violent and Hobbesian as the novel progresses, the prose is distinctive and dreamlike. Navarro Aquino swaps characters and takes on their voices with graceful fluidity, moving from Urayoán's messianic prophecies to characters that punctuate their passages with scraps of poetry ... Navarro Aquino's gift is translating that historical pain into the turbulent inner lives of his characters, all struggling in their own, sometimes destructive, ways with their feelings of loneliness and abandonment.
As each character responds to the storm, the novel explores how a natural disaster can bring out both the best and worst in human nature ... Though the hurricane — referred to as Maria, la monstrua or simply she/her — strikes before Velorio opens, the storm itself is, in many ways, the main character of the story. On every page we are confronted with the devastation left in Maria’s wake ... As the characters attempt to make sense of the destruction, the narrative occasionally takes on a sort of concussed dreaminess ... At their best, these dreamlike sequences have a Murakami-esque flavor, albeit darker — here, the characters have surfaced from a bad dream, only to find themselves in a living nightmare ... From the beginning, Navarro Aquino establishes a visceral, lyric tone that frequently rises to a fever pitch ... Urayoán is positioned to be an equally complicated figure — he’s an idealistic, troubled cult leader who is grappling with government failure to respond to Maria, as well as the horrible echoes of colonialism ... Unfortunately, as the novel reaches its climax, Urayoán begins to resemble an almost comically villainous, one-dimensional plot device ... La monstrua could have been villain enough. In “Velorio,” Navarro Aquino, an incredibly talented young writer, is still finding his way.
Aquino sets a mood of charged and desperate hope ... Aquino mixes Spanish into the English text and stacks up details and characters, trusting the readers to engage with the world he creates, which is richer for all that is implied and unexplained. This is a demanding read that rouses high emotions and offers no simplistic resolutions.