Alvar’s rich debut provides a deep and textured look at Filipino culture at home and abroad from an array of vastly diverse vantage points: She writes of Manila-born oil wives’ tenuous marriages in Bahrain through a collective “we,” of a long-suffering immigrant named Esmeralda who falls for an office worker as she cleans the World Trade Center just before 9/11, and of a fatherless schoolboy in the Philippines who learns the heartbreaking truth about why he was born without legs. Through careful, delicate prose, Alvar reveals her characters’ pasts and desires, which range from saintly to shameful in this deeply religious culture.
At times, her tales can veer into overwrought creative-writing exercises, as when a handicapped boy whom classmates compare to a mythical vampire finds a friend in a slum-dwelling girl with uncontrollable menses. But Alvar’s characters are engaging and memorable, and their homes swell with visceral smells and sounds as she places us gently, firmly, into their imperfect lives. A–