Book Review: The Great Divide by Cristina Henríquez

March 5, 2024

On the steamy isthmus of Panama, the world is about to change. Land will disappear, the backs of mountains will be broken, and two oceans will collide, forever altering world navigation. Against this grand backdrop, Cristina Henríquez has set a tale that feels both lusciously expansive and searingly intimate. With sharp, spare prose the hive of activity surrounding the construction of the Panama Canal comes to life in The Great Divide. Yet, despite the persistent clatter of steam shovels, pickaxes, and raindrops, this is a story shaped by its silences. The unyielding silence between a father and his son. The proud silence of a mother with a long-held secret. The devouring silence of an empty marriage.

The year is 1907 and Ada Bunting has bravely set off alone from her home in Barbados for Panama, hoping to find work that will earn her enough money to pay for the surgery her sister desperately needs. While she’s heard that wages are high in the bustling company towns erected to support the building of the massive canal, she quickly learns there’s an order here—Gold for the Americans, Silver for everyone else—the first of many divides which appear in the novel.

Meanwhile, Omar Aquino has also sought work on the canal. He’s one of the few native Panamanians employed there and has joined the digging not for the money but to escape the loneliness of a life spent watching his fisherman father sail out each morning, leaving Omar in an empty house. And so he finds himself in a throng of men opening the earth, wanting “to give purpose to his purposeless days.” This gives rise to the second divide in the novel, between Omar and his father, who has refused to speak to his son since he began work in the Cut.

A chance encounter between these two leads Ada into the employ of John Oswald, who has come to Panama with the grand ambition of curing malaria and finds himself in need of a nurse girl to care for his ailing wife. Ironically, Marian Oswald is not suffering from the malaria that her husband hopes to use to secure his legacy, but common pneumonia, a disease she might’ve just as easily contracted back home in the Smokey Mountains. In John and Marian’s marriage another divide emerges, as Marian’s own scientific ambitions and passion for botany slowly disappear in her husband’s shadow.

However, the novel cannot be contained by these three storylines. Rather, Henríquez effortlessly weaves together a multitude of lives, from Ada’s self-determined mother to Omar’s bantering band of diggers. There are abrasive cooks, charming mail boys, clear-eyed fortune tellers, and self-absorbed physicians. The narrative moves seamlessly through this multitude of perspectives, capturing the breadth of lives touched by the dual act of construction and destruction. This tangle of lives never becomes overwhelming, nor do their intersections ever feel contrived. Instead, they create a reminder that every person has a story to tell, though history often forgets all but a few names.

There’s a feeling of inevitability that runs through The Great Divide. Both from invisible forces that seem to be at work in the characters’ lives and because history tells us that the canal will be built. The Atlantic and Pacific will be joined. And America will profit from it for the better part of a century. The weight of this is clearly felt by the men and women swept up in the canal’s creation. Some of them may raise their voices against it, others may try to hide from it, but none of them can ultimately stop it.

What they can do is believe. Faith becomes a necessary force for almost every character in this sweeping story. Some, like Omar’s father, have lost their faith in the face of overwhelming grief. Others, like Ada’s mother who maintains that “the Lord will take care,” use their faith as a shield and support. At times, belief seems to offer nothing more than false promises. At others, it seems to be an essential means of carrying on with life. Ghosts. Magic. Science. All warrant belief according to various characters. Belief becomes the pulsing heartbeat of the novel. Intangible, and yet, as inexorable as the ever-widening canal.

There is no simple conclusion to be drawn from the shifting forms of faith that appear in the novel, just as there is no simple summation for the lives of this vibrant cast of characters. They overlap and diverge in a way that feels true to real life. Sometimes, frustratingly so, as characters brush against each other and depart, only briefly connected by the canal. By the inevitable joining of east and west. A joining that is only possible by physically dividing the land.

They are separated by race, ethnicity, sex, and economic status. Divided by pride, ambition, grief, and silence. Those that learn to speak, to listen, to see may find a narrow bridge across these great divides. Others will be swallowed, perhaps without even knowing it, by “La Boca,” the gaping mouth being opened in the name of progress.

For some the weeks captured in the novel are a stark, life-altering event, for others it feels more like a fever dream, leaving only traces upon waking. This is a portrait of contrasts. Where the land feels both fragile and unshakable. Where people are disposable and yet every life feels vital. Where impossibilities swirl through reality, like the smell of violets drifting on an open sea, leaving it to the reader to decide what is really there.

Publisher: Ecco (Harper Collins)

Release Date: March 1st, 2024

Reviewed by B.B. Garin.

B. B. Garin is a writer living in Buffalo, NY. Her story collection, New Songs for Old Radios, is available from Wordrunner Press. She is a recipient of the Sara Patton Fiction Stipend from The Writer’s Hotel. Her work has appeared inThe Hawai’i Pacific Review, Luna Station Quarterly, Palooka, 3rd Wednesday, Crack the Spine, and more. Connect with her @bb_garin or




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