April 2024

The Cemetery of Untold Stories

By Julia Alvarez
Review by
Magical and multifaceted, Julia Alvarez’s meditation on creativity, culture and aging, The Cemetery of Untold Stories, is a triumph.
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Julia Alvarez’s The Cemetery of Untold Stories is a powerful and lyrical allegory about an older artist haunted by her own creativity.

Alma Cruz is a writer and professor based in Vermont and one of four daughters in a family from the Dominican Republic. Having witnessed a friend and fellow author driven to a mental institution and then to an early death by writerly frustration, Alma is guilt-ridden for resisting her friend’s pleas for help with her unfinished story, and, more than that, determined to avoid the same fate. In the aftermath of her father’s subsequent death, two things become clear. First, Alma herself will “soon be entering that territory of the old—okay, not old old, but the anteroom, no matter what the magazines said about seventy being the new fifty.” And second, aging isn’t just a matter of physical or cognitive decline; “aging also happens in the creative life.” And “there weren’t enough years left to tell all the stories she wanted to tell.”

Seeking change and control, Alma quits her day job. But it’s not enough. The feeling of artistic aging, that she’s running out of time, won’t allow her any peace. The solution, Alma realizes, is to set herself free by exorcising the ghosts of her unfinished projects. Returning to the D.R., she decides to bury her failed manuscripts in the soil of her homeland, but rather than squashing them permanently, the rite gives her characters new life. The stories Alma buries grow like seeds. The remainder of the novel is focused on these tales.

Alvarez has a wonderful way of being both lyrical and precisely concrete at the same time. The specificity of her writing is reflected in myriad ways on every page, and it’s not limited to the beauty of The Cemetery of Untold Stories’ central metaphor about storytelling. Two characters stand out: Papi, Alma’s father, a doctor turned dissident who hated talking about the past, and Bienvenida, a fictionalized version of the wife of Rafael Trujillo, the dictator who ruled the D.R. for 31 years. They have exile in common: “Bienvenida had been erased from history; Papi had sealed himself off . . . these were precisely the characters Alma felt drawn to. The silenced ones, their tongues cut off.” That brutal image is one indelible description among many. Magical and multifaceted, this meditation on creativity, culture and aging is a triumph.

Read our interview with Julia Alvarez on The Cemetery of Untold Stories.

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