It is difficult to believe Mia Alvar’s debut collection, In the Country, is in fact a debut. Alvar’s nine deft, confident stories full of morally complicated characters and rich, unfaltering prose have all the marks of an author who has arrived at a distinctive voice. No stranger to transnational migration—Alvar was born in the Philippines and later moved to Bahrain and America—her characters live in many of the places Alvar called home.
However, it’s the transformations her characters undergo when they travel across borders—between work and home, from one neighborhood to another—that Alvar is most interested in exploring. In “Esmeralda,” a Filipina night-shift custodian and a businessman working together in the World Trade Center begin a brief affair. Admirers of Alice Munro’s seamless manipulation of chronology and novel-like stories will appreciate Alvar’s penchant for non-linear storytelling and judicious use of backstory. “Esmeralda” meanders easily between scenes from Esmeralda’s childhood, her arrival in America, the romantic relationship, and the events of 9/11. But where Munro would have been subtle, Alvar has an edge. Her stories bite. “John was the closest you had ever come to an addiction…” Esmeralda narrates. “Smoking and drinking struck you as a man’s vices, and a waste of money besides. Gambling, too. But nights with John—the stars in your brain, the beggar that sex made of your body—gave you a taste of it, that life…”
In “The Kontrabida,” the first story in the collection, a young pharmacist, Steve, visits his mother and sick father in the Philippines. Soon Steve suspects his mother, now a savvy business owner still under her abusive husband’s control, of unspeakable acts. These moments of ambiguity, highlighting secrets, flaws, and weaknesses, where no single character demands our complete sympathy or vitriol, are where the stories are at their best and most authentic. And there are many such moments.
In “The Miracle Worker,” a wealthy Bahraini woman hires teacher and recent Philippine transplant, Sally Rivas, to give her developmentally-delayed daughter private lessons. “I was drawn to special education,” narrates Sally, “whose textbooks included pictures of collapsed spines and rock-like formations in the brain. I liked the sound the two words made together and the person I became in other people’s eyes when I uttered them.” Later, after the lessons are underway, Sally observes: “I saw more clearly how much power she had given me, the damage I could do, her dependence on what I chose to say.” The story goes on to detail Sally’s increasingly complicated and challenging relationship with Mrs. Mansour and her daughter, as well as with her husband who is largely overpowered by the story (as many of the men are in Alvar’s tales).
The collection returns—fittingly—in the end to the Philippines with a novella-length story. “In the Country” follows Milagros Sandoval and her husband Jim, a reporter turned activist, as they navigate political unrest and martial law during the 70s and 80s. As politics begin to invade Milagros’ domestic space—a sort of bunker is built in her bedroom and serves as a printing press, suspicious officers pay her surprise visits, her sons’ life is threatened—her roles as wife, mother, and citizen are tested against one another.
“In the Country” transports Milagros far from the person she might have imagined herself to be when she first met Jim at a protest as a young nurse and moves her life in a direction she would never have predicted. Much of the pleasure of In the Country as a whole emerges from experiencing the unpredictable directions Alvar takes her characters, as she pushes them, often quite literally, into uncharted territory. With this debut, Mia Alvar announces herself as a fresh and formidable voice that we should all be excited to welcome onto the literary scene.
Publication Date: June 16, 2015
Reviewed by Maggie Zebracka