Book Review: Soledad’s Sister

Trust Butch Dalisay to deliver a heart-wrenching tale and then make you laugh your head off amidst the tragic story. Soledad’s Sister starts out as a compelling, if not entirely unusual, drama which descends into a hilarious dark comedy.

The story progresses through a series of flashbacks, the same device Dalisay used in his first novel Killing Time in a Warm Place. We get to know the characters mainly through remembrances of their pasts. The narrative moves forward even as it blends in historical background and intimate memories.

The novel opens with the body of an overseas worker identified as Aurora Cabahug arriving at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. A telegram is sent to the town of Paez and the real Aurora faints as she received the news of her sister’s death. Soledad used her name to work in Jeddah, having been blacklisted after the unfortunate end of her first overseas job in Hong Kong. She had sex with the son of the couple she worked for, got pregnant and was deported.

Rory works as a singer in a local bar and is poised to get a bigger gig in Saipan although as far as her sister knows, she’s still in school getting a college degree. Left in her care is Soledad’s son.

Town policeman Walter Zamora delivers the sad news to Rory and is later tasked with accompanying her to Manila to get the coffin. He was assigned in Paez after botching a kidnapping case and screwing the 17-year-old witness. His wife and son left him for England and he now lives alone with a stray cat.

Rory and Walter embark on a six-hour trip while also quietly delving into their own pasts. We learn that Rory’s parents and younger brother died in a fire after Soledad, in a fit of rage, pumped the gas stove too hard and it exploded. We find out that Walter was caught in his infidelity when his wife called to tell him about his father’s death and it was the kidnapping witness who answered the phone.

After a long drive, they finally get to the airport and retrieve the body without much hassle. As they stopped to eat, the van carrying the casket gets stolen for akyat bahay gang purposes, the thief blissfully unaware of his excess loot.

The tragedy worsens to the point of being ridiculous that you just can’t help but burst into hysterical laughter. It’s Murphy’s Law on crack. And yet you really can’t dismiss it as too preposterous to be realistic. In this country, absurdity is a natural element of our daily lives. This usually falls under the category “only in the Philippines.”

Through his astute observations and candid descriptions, Dalisay accurately captures the realities of the Filipino diaspora. However sad the story may be, his sharp humor and tight control of the narrative keep it from lapsing into a cheesy melodrama. It’s the skillful combination of drama and hilarity, the mundane and the absurd, cold realism and poignant emotions, that makes this novel the story of our lives.

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