We remember some books because they remind us not to take life too seriously, and others because they overwhelm us with unforgettable portrayals of life’s darkest moments. A wonderful example of the latter is When You Get to the Other Side, written by Mariana Osorio Gumá and translated to English by Cecilia Weddell. It’s a story of great poignancy that was originally published in Mexico in 2019.
Siblings Emilia and Gregorio are raised by their grandmother, Mamá Lochi, a curandera (psychic healer) who teaches them all about the spiritual world as they travel up and down the mountains of Amatlán, Mexico. When Mamá Lochi dies, her grandchildren are left with nothing but a metal box full of cash and contact information for their father and uncles, who all live in the United States. Emilia and Gregorio use the money to pay smugglers, known as coyotes, to take them to the U.S. They begin to trek across the vast, merciless desert, encountering a human trafficking operation along the way.
Gumá’s language is beautiful, her writing style unceasingly bold, but her novel’s literary merit is best embodied by its introspective imagery and symbolism. The chapters alternate between memories of Mamá Lochi’s life and the present story of Gregorio and Emilia’s journey, building a lovely, lyrical congruence between the two narratives. Weddell’s translation is excellent as well, her attention to detail evident in every sentence.
Mamá Lochi’s teachings manifest in her grandchildren’s behavior: Emilia foresees future events, and Gregorio becomes invisible to avoid his pursuers. It can be a challenge to incorporate magic into a story without unbalancing it, but Gumá does so magnificently, blending in the paranormal so seamlessly that the novel’s world feels neither wholly different from ours nor quite the same. The characters aren’t always so realistically wrought—sometimes acting inconsistently with their age or prior behavior—but Gregorio’s and Emilia’s experiences are so horrific that even the most subtle moments of magic are striking.
When You Get to the Other Side is a short but dense read, best suited for readers with the patience for a slow-moving plot. They’ll be rewarded with a breath of fresh air and new perspectives on immigration and the supernatural.