The Night Of The Virgin tells the story of Emmanuel “Manny” Hernandez, a young soccer prodigy living in Texas who one day wants to become a professional soccer player. There’s one big problem, though — he’s undocumented. But his legal status will not crush his dreams entirely. One day, he and his best friend Hector leave their lives in Texas behind and head to California to see what surprises and opportunities life has in store for them there. Over the course of the novel, we will see Manny grow from a brash young man into a loving father, but before he gets from point A to point B Manny will experience many triumphs, failures, mistakes, and regrets.
The novel is divided into four sections. Part One and Two tell the majority of the plot and take us through years and decades of Manny’s life. Part 3 was my personal favorite, as it tells an intimate account of what happened at a party Hector hosted in which he was going to meet with Manny again after several months of not speaking to each other. Part 4 is my least favorite, as there were some issues I found difficult to overlook personally.
I will discuss the different sections of the novel in detail.
Part One & Two:
There were many aspects of Manny’s character and story that I could relate to or sympathize with. Novels with undocumented protagonists immediately get my attention, as they are not narratives often explored in American fiction, so I was eager to read about Manny’s unique struggles and experiences as an undocumented Mexican. Elliott Turner does a good job depicting Manny’s fears and anxieties about his legal status and in Parts One and Two, we follow Manny from his teen years as a prodigy soccer player and throughout his adulthood as he seeks a professional soccer career. I won’t discuss the plot too much, but I felt the pacing was steady and the writing style clear and engaging, so I found it easy to become engrossed in reading about Manny’s trials and tribulations as well as his successes. In short, it was a promising start to the novel!
A minor issue I had with this part was how the author glossed over how Manny’s undocumented status was “fixed.” Manny gained legal status off screen when a “President or political party had passed amnesty laws that legalized immigrants like him” (pg. 97). He couldn’t even remember what President or political party it was! This seemed a rather dismissive way to write off an issue that is very important to undocumented people. Personally, I would have preferred a more concrete and detailed account for such a momentous event in Manny’s life, as it was his legal status that eventually allows the rest of the plot to move forward. I did thoroughly enjoy Parts One and Two of the novel, but this minor issue was one I had to point out.
*minor spoilers head*
This part was the most fun to read, as it brought to life a crucial event in the story I had previously thought had been glossed over in Part One and Two. I give a spoiler warning because I must explicitly talk about Hector being gay and Part Three is entirely composed of the scene where he comes out to Manny. I think it’s important to point out that there is a gay character in this novel so that Queer readers are aware, thus I only consider this minor spoilers.
Part Three is a flashback to July 14, 2013, when Hector and his boyfriend Matt threw a party and invited Manny despite the former best friends growing apart and rarely speaking to each other. This scene was particularly fun to read because the people at the party are a diverse and colorful bunch, and the author renders them all vividly. I really got the sense that I was in the middle of this party listening to people’s conversations about politics and sexuality, and witnessing the social dynamics of Queer and heterosexual people in an intimate-party setting. This scene is not at all like the first two parts in narrative style and structure, so the change can be a bit jarring at first, but once I started reading I was hooked.
I got to know Hector more intimately in this part, which is what I wanted more of in the first half of the novel, but could not be provided as it was told through Manny’s point of view and Hector was in the closet. In this scene, I got a better sense of what kind of man Hector was, flaws and all. I was saddened to see that Hector had internalized homophobia, which I understand is not uncommon among some Queer Latino men, but to read it on the page is always hurtful nonetheless. Despite his flaws, I found Hector to be an interesting character and wish he had a more prominent role in the story.
As a side note, I want to point out that there is some homophobic language in the novel, often coming from Manny. Sometimes it is explicitly challenged, but sometimes it is not. There is also some problematic language such as when Manny says Hector had “turned,” meaning he turned gay. This was said several times and it never sat well with me, even if it is a realistic portrayal of how straight men think. It is not until Manny is older that he realized how awful some of the things he thought about Hector were and how much he cared for his friend. This is progress for Manny, but it does not make up for accepting and understanding Hector when he needed it most.
Part Four (with critique)
This was my least favorite part of the novel. It is ostensibly a collection of diary entries written down during Manny’s youth, so we see his thoughts written in a stream-of-consciousness style that you will either like or not. Unfortunately, I did not like the informal style of writing, lack of punctuation, and youthful/naive voice in this section of the book. I stress that this is a personal issue I had; others may be better able to appreciate Manny’s unfiltered thoughts and youthful insights. Admittedly, some of Manny’s most profound and unique thoughts happened in this section. So I did appreciate the deep characterization that Manny got as well as they honesty with which it was portrayed.
But my major issue with this part was that it was never clear to me if every diary entry was supposed to have been written during the marked date (for example, December 2010 or July 2013) or if Manny was supposed to be recalling all these memories when he was older. This part really bugged me because I racked my brain trying to make sense of it and I shouldn’t have to work so hard to make sense of something. The style of writing indicates that Manny is young and that what we read are his diary entries, seemingly unedited, as he is too excited and caught in the moment to add punctuation sometimes. Other times he is eloquent and adds commas in all the right places. An older Manny would not speak and write in this juvenile voice, I thought to myself. But then why is Manny talking about the future/present? Often Manny will say things that make it explicit that he is speaking as his older self. For example:
“Looking back, knowing how things turn out, I can’t help but laugh at my insecurity and anxiety. Now, hoy en dia, I know that Catracha would become my first girlfriend and that we would date for years…”
Clearly, the quote above was not written in 2010, as the diary entry claims because in Part One and Two we see Manny through his adulthood, far beyond 2010. The “now” Manny is referring is not 2010. Perhaps a final version of the book (out in June 2017) will clarify this issue and indicate more explicitly whose voice we’re supposed to be hearing. But the Advance Reader’s Copy I read unfortunately did not and it affected my enjoyment of Part Four.
The Night Of The Virgin does not have a traditional narrative structure, jumping from past to present and back again essentially the entire time. It happens in Parts One and Two, and then again in Part 3 and repeatedly in Part Four. Initially, this non-chronological plot structure is fun and easy to follow, but then unfortunately becomes muddled in the last third of the book. In the end, the drastically different sections of the novel gave the story a disjointed feeling, rather than a smooth and flowing narrative, which I personally prefer. However, the strength of the characters and the actual content of the plot were interesting enough to make my overall reading experience positive.
In case you were wondering, this is not an overtly religious novel. The title refers to a specific scene in the story. But in general, there few or almost no references to La Virgen de Guadalupe. Yes, Manny went to church sometimes, but the novel is not preachy, nor is it heavy handed with religious overtones.
One final thing to note is that there is a lot of code-switching in this book, a lot of “Spanglish,” and sometimes full sentences written in Spanish with little explanation. You’ll see Spanish words or phrases in almost every page, which indicates that Spanish is an essential part of the story. While it is possible to enjoy the novel if you don’t speak Spanish, those who do (especially those familiar with Mexican Spanish and its colloquialisms) will certainly appreciate The Night Of The Virgin all the more due to the familiarity with the language. Since I am Mexican and also live in Texas, I felt intimately connected to the language, the setting, and the characters. I felt the book was written specifically for someone like me. Despite its flaws, The Night Of The Virgin is a solid debut for Elliott Turner. It may not resonate with readers across the board, but for a number of us, the authenticity of the language and experiences on the page will ring true and we will often recognize, on these very pages, aspects of ourselves or people we know . That alone makes it a worthwhile experience.
Disclosure: I was sent a copy of this book by the author for review consideration.
Woah, that was a long review! But I wanted to be thorough because mine will be one of the earliest reviews out for The Night Of The Virgin. The book won’t be out until June 2017, but you can add it on Goodreads now!
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