Captain of the Sleepers by Mayra Montero

Reviewed by Samantha Schnee

Image of Captain of the Sleepers by Mayra Montero

In chapters that alternate between past and present, this slip of a novel recounts the pain of a child witnessing his parents' infidelities. J.T. Bunker is the "Captain of the Sleepers," a small-time pilot who falls in love with the narrator's mother and begins transporting cadavers, or "sleepers" as the narrator calls them, from mainland Puerto Rico to Vieques-they want to be buried at home--as a reason to see her. The tale unfolds in a series of monologues by the sixty-year-old narrator, Andres, relating his childhood memories, and the eighty-year-old cancer-stricken J.T., who has tracked down Andres to seek absolution for an atrocity Andres witnessed him committing fifty years earlier.

Andres is reluctant to revisit the past but eventually hears J.T. out.
 

Set against the backdrop of the Puerto Rican Independence movement, the tension of the story would perhaps benefit from a few less portentous reminders of how unhappily events will turn out for all involved. Nevertheless, the reader wants to know as much or perhaps even more than Andres where his mother's passions really lay-if not with Andres' father, then perhaps J.T., or the charismatic leader of the independence movement?-and whether they were the cause of her early death.

Edith Grossman's graceful translation of Mayra Montero's prose shows off the plot to its best effect, and the novel is perhaps best enjoyed in one sitting, an afternoon's meal to savor either poolside or, with its lush tropical setting, as a fireside escape in the dead of winter. For the reader unfamiliar with Montero, whom Julia Alvarez calls "One of the most exciting and interesting writers of the Americas, North and South," this, her seventh novel, is a wonderful place to start.

Samantha Schnee is an editor at Words Without Borders.