Sandra Benítez

A Place Where the Sea Remembers

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A Place Where the Sea Remembers Summary

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In her 1993 debut novel, A Place Where the Sea Remembers, author Sandra Benítez uses the magical realism genre to tell a series of interconnected tales about the residents of a small coastal town in Mexico. In lyrical, detailed snapshots, Benítez focuses on the life cycle touchstones that affect the ordinary people she has chosen to write about: births, deaths, and the family connections that fuel the deepest emotions. The novel is composed of eight chapters that each focus on a different member of the community, but most end up connecting through the village healer or benevolent witch, who has access to magic and, most importantly, sees the inherent value of the stories of those around her. Critics compare the novel unfavorably to the work of famed Latin American author Isabel Allende, whose magic realism style Benítez seems to be echoing.

The novel opens with a framing narrative, as Remedios, the healer who lives in the small Mexican village of Santiago, walks along the sea, thinking about the ways in which it connects to her memories of the people she has encountered. After touching the salty water to her tongue, Remedios has an extended flashback leading to the stories.

In the stories, we learn about a small swathe of Santiago’s residents as they come in and out of Remedios’s life. Some are of lesser importance to the interconnectedness of the plots, but all are bookended by the healer’s rituals and incantations. Remedios’s magic powers are unclear – either she is capable of affecting those around her with spells, or else it is simply her ability to listen without judgment and to keep the secrets of those who have sought out her help that allows her to be the center point and backbone of Santiago. As she remembers the people she has helped, and those who lived their lives in Santiago without seeking her out, we hear their stories, great and small.

On the beach, we meet Justo Flores the birdman, whose trained canaries entertain tourists by hopping around a cardboard castle. Like Esperanza, he is also burdened by a decision he made a long time ago and now suffers with his sorrow – he allowed his second wife, Ernestina, to kick his first wife, Justina, out of the house.

Fulgencio Llanos, a traveling photographer, makes his living by buttering up middle-aged women with honey-tongued compliments to get them to commission portraits from him. As he goes through his day, he thinks about how he accidentally lost the one extraordinary photograph that he has ever taken – the one that would have made his career – in an unpleasant gringo’s car, after a ride filled with mutual suspicion and bad feelings.

Esperanza Clemente is a popular midwife who has kept herself from conceiving a child as punishment for an earlier misdeed. Her atonement ends when she is wooed by El Maestro, a teacher whose sweet attentions allow Esperanza to make peace with her guilt, but who is burdened with the care of his elderly mother. The midwife and the teacher struggle to balance nursing his mother and taking time out for nurturing their own budding romance.

We hear the story of Cesar Burgos the fisherman, whose wife and two children died in a horrific bus accident. He mourns their loss by building a roadside shrine – but his devotion to his grief causes his remaining son to grow up ignored and alone until Cesar has a clear vision of his son when they are sitting in their boat together.

The novel’s main storyline follows sixteen-year-old Marta Rodriguez, a hotel chambermaid who is pregnant as a result of rape on the beach. Instead of supporting Marta’s decision to have an abortion, her brother Candelario Marroquin, the salad-maker in the hotel’s restaurant, has agreed to take the unwanted baby once it is born because and his wife, Chayo, a paper flower seller, have not been able to conceive. Meanwhile, Candelario loses his job at the restaurant after making a terrible salad for his boss, who, trying to impress some out-of-town friends, requests a fancy “Caesar salad” of which Candelario has never heard. At the same time, Chayo suddenly becomes pregnant against all odds, and she no longer wants to take in Marta’s unborn child.

A furious Marta at first seeks out supernatural revenge, visiting a dark magic user, el brujo, to cast a curse on Chayo’s newborn son. When Candelario finds out what his sister has done, he cuts off all contact with her for years. Four years later, ruing her actions, Marta goes to see the curandera Remedios to undo whatever damage has been done. Remedios’s magical solution is ambiguous, transposing the danger from Chayo’s son onto Marta’s boy, who, as the curandera says, was already born with a terminal illness.