Beth Alvarado’s Jillian in the Borderlands is not a novel, though it often feels like one. It is “a cycle of rather dark tales,” to use the titular language, tales of varying length and constant strangeness.
Immediately, in the first tale, the reader is plunged into Jillian’s world, a hallucinatory one of ghosts and eternal knowledge, but also a familiar one, filled with deportations and racial injustice and men girls are told to stay away from. These tales are peppered with fantastical and average characters alike. There is Jillian (child at the beginning of the collection and woman by the end) who, at birth, was gifted (or burdened) with a vast amount of knowledge about the past, present, and future, along with a smattering of vocabulary in many languages. She is mute, she can see the dead, and she contains multitudes of pain, her own and others’. There is Angie—Jillian’s mother and a daughter and a lover and eventually a grandmother, but not a mystic or a seer. There is Juana of God and her spirit-summoning Chihuahua Junie; Marisol, who cleans house for Jillian’s grandmother and is at one point deported; and later Primero and Segundo, otherworldly twins.
As the book progresses, the tales lengthen. This feels tied to the protagonist, as she grows, as she sees and understands more of the world, as more is asked of her. The Jillian of the final tales—a woman who gave birth in the desert trying to provide humanitarian aid—certainly deserves and requires more page time than a young girl seeing ghosts in a city. The story moves chronologically through Jillian’s life, sometimes jumping forward a great deal between tales.
The backdrops here are beautiful. Alvarado knows how to capture setting in a quick line: “Sunlight melting like butter down the sliding glass door”, “We raise our glasses and the blood orange that is the sun gets caught there”, “…a dry heat that sears the nasal passages and parches the mouth, dries even the tissues of the throat and lungs”.
Where the setting is vivid, the fantastical thick, and the characters fascinating, the narrative itself sometimes becomes cloudy. In each tale there are at least three, sometimes more points of view: third person following Angie and Jillian, and always a first-person account from one of the supporting women. These first-person accounts come from, among others, a neighbor of Angie and Jillian’s described as “the neighborhood collector of sorrows,” the white mother of a mixed child seeking to help her son suffering from PTSD, and Juana of God herself. However, the shifting nature of the narrative muddies the story at times rather than clarifying it. It can take a moment to get one’s bearing when switching from character to character, and in a story that is already so strange, the additional strangeness is jarring.
Language, too, shifts in this collection. Many of the characters are bilingual and alternate between English and Spanish regularly in thought and conversation. This makes for a rich text that straddles culture not only in setting and character, but in speech.
There is a shift of connotation in these tales, as well. In America, we are so accustomed to our land being the great land, the land of the free and the brave. Mexico, we are so often told, is the land of the cartel, of the poor, and of far worse, if you listen to the president. In Jillian in the Borderlands, however, this dichotomy is flipped. Mexico is the oasis, contains the ideal, houses the utopia. America is plagued, is that from which to escape, is the dystopia. We see people fleeing as families, fleeing as pilgrims. We watch from Mexico the atrocities happening at the border. Even as immigrants and pilgrims seek a way in el norte, Jillian, Juana of God and co. are creating a home for those who need it, for the lost, the poor, the hurting. There are moments of dialogue in that latter half that read almost too much like a prepared speech, but in those moments there is also a clarity to balance against the parts of the book that remain unclear: there is the thin “veil between the living and the dead, between the possible and the fantastic, between what is and what is loco” and there is a woman in a courtroom saying, “‘Remind them of our complicity in the overthrow of democratic governments, in the coups, in the massacres, in the disappearances, in the death squads, in the torture.”
Some of these tales succeed more than others, but all of them are evocative and filled with pain. There is not a moment in these stories where you don’t feel the vein connecting Jillian’s world to our own. After all, hers is ours, but with ghosts and vast knowledge, mystic healers, and more than a fair share of Oprah.
Publisher: Black Lawrence Press
Publication Date: October 20
Reviewed by Kathryn Ordiway