BOOK REVIEW: Next Year In Havana By Chantal Cleeton

Loyalty is a complicated thing - where does family fit on the hierarchy? Above or below country? Above or below the natural order of things? Or are we above all else loyal to ourselves, to our hearts, our convictions, the internal voice that guides us?
— Chantel Cleeton, Next Year In Havana

Next Year In Havana is a sweeping historical drama about young women from two different generations who feel the pull of a country in turmoil and desire the love of men whose only loyalty is to their homeland. The Cuba of Chantal Cleeton’s depiction is a place of immense beauty and unbearable strife, and serves as the central character in this novel about love, politics, family and loyalty.

A young Cuban-American writer named Marisol Ferrera flies to Cuba to spread her grandmother’s ashes. Having grown up hearing stories about the country but never having visited, Marisol finds herself deeply connected to the beauty and history she encounters, but is taken aback by the severity of the political and social climate. She struggles to come to terms with the reality that she knows very little about the place her family comes from, and finds herself questioning her grandparents’ decision to leave during the upheaval of the 1960s. As Marisol explores Havana she learns about her grandmother’s past and the circumstances that led to her departure from her home country. With the help of one of her grandmother’s childhood best friends Marisol slowly pieces together the secrets that forced her family to flee to America, and begins to wonder if she really knew her grandparents at all.

Next Year In Havana is a bold and ambitious novel, covering not only the complex and at times disturbing history of Cuba, but also navigating present-day tensions that still afflict the region. Cleeton, who comes from a Cuban family in Florida, beautifully weaves past and present together to demonstrate how decades of political upheaval have changed Cuba, but also how resilient the people of the beautiful Caribbean nation have been throughout it all.

The novel unfolds in two parallel timelines, the first telling Marisol’s present-day story, and the second telling her grandmother Elisa’s story in the months leading up to Fidel Castro’s coup. Though Marisol’s story is compelling and lovely, it is Elisa who truly carries the narrative. Her story is bout the loss of innocence and coming of age during a time of turmoil, as well as one of complicated first love. A sweet teenage girl when the conflict begins, Elisa’s life is forever changed by the people she meets and events she witnesses over the course of several months leading up to the revolution. Her perspectives on politics, wealth and family are warped by the complexity of what’s unfolding around her, and by powerful men whose orbits she is sucked into.

In the past I’ve expressed frustration at authors using dark historical moments as background noise for love stories. It so often feels forced and unnatural and unfair. But in Next Year In Havana the storylines of romance and those of conflict mesh perfectly with one another, highlighting the two opposing themes in Cuban history. Both Marisol and Elisa find themselves wrapped up in rapidly evolving romances while in Havana, and despite the short timelines in which they find themselves falling in love, the idea that things could move so quickly seems entirely plausible. Cuba is a country of spectacular beauty, but also a place that has been warped time and time again by the dark side of humanity. The Havana of Cleeton’s creation is a place rife with danger and possibility. In those conditions of heightened senses and emotions, it seems plausible two people would fall for each other so quickly after meeting.

Next Year In Havana is a spectacular novel of historical fiction. It’s beautifully written, perfectly executed, and highly entertaining. Having just been to Havana myself (which you can read about HERE and HERE), I found myself so drawn into the story and so moved by the honesty and emotion with which Cleeton depicts Cuba.