Given the fractures that mark the history of the United States and the many immigrants who call this nation home, it’s not particularly surprising that so much of American storytelling gravitates toward the familial, seeks shelter in that blood-bound country within the country. What has been said best about American life in the realm of fiction has often been said through the prism of the American family.
It is squarely through the door of the familial that Luis Alberto Urrea’s dizzying new novel, The House of Broken Angels, enters the pantheon and takes its rightful place alongside the best contemporary accounting of what it means to belong in this country of endless otherness.
The novel takes place both in chronological time and in violation of it. It follows the de la Cruz clan, “an American family, which happens to be from Mexico.” The family’s eldest, Mamá América, has died. Her son, the family patriarch Miguel Angel de la Cruz, is also dying, but he attempts to ward off death long enough to organize back-to-back family gatherings: his mother’s funeral and his own final birthday party. The narrative—sometimes bittersweet, sometimes uproarious—swoops between these two events and the personal histories of their attendees.
Urrea writes in exhilarating but controlled slashes, wielding a machete that cuts like a scalpel. Every page comes alive with scent, taste and, perhaps most movingly, touch. The novel’s most affecting characters are passing through the tail end of life. They carry the burden of a shared history, and in this way their smallest, most delicate interactions—the brush of a hand, the sight of scarred and sagging skin—are alive with the weight of all that once was. The House of Broken Angels is about a quintessentially American family, a family that came north looking for heaven but found that “heaven was a blueprint.” But it’s also about what it means to look back on a life and, with total honesty, take stock.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Urrea for The House of Broken Angels.
This article was originally published in the March 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.