Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Water Museum by Luis Alberto Urrea

Urrea’s short story collection The Water Museum deals with topics and settings which will be familiar to readers of his other fiction and nonfiction writing. The stories share a western and southwestern setting, hovering around the U.S. border with Mexico both physically and thematically. While united in setting and theme, the style and gone can diverge widely, demonstrating a range of ability. 

Some, such as "The Southside Raza Image Federation Corp of Discovery" and "The National City Reparation Society," which share a point-of-view character, are darkly humorous in tone, with slangy and loosely casual language. Others, including the beautiful first story in the collection, “Mountains without Number,” are lyrical and philosophical in their language use and themes, drawing not only on modern life in these border regions but on historical cultural referents. The chilling and Edgar-award winning “Amapola” builds from its seeming origin point as a teenage love story into a gripping conclusion and touches upon drug trafficking and issues of immigration. Two stories in the collection, “Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush” (which was also published separately as a graphic novel) and the title story, lean toward the speculative. “Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush” is pure magical realism; while “The Water Museum” paints a dystopian picture of a future world in which climate change has made water a rarity and class divides between the haves and have-nots have widened even more sharply.

Many of the tales have ambiguous or deliberately unresolved endings; characters and settings recur. Some of the stories are stronger than others – for example, “Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush” was better-suited to the graphic novel format than the strictly written – but all show a keen intelligence and command of the craft. Urrea, born and raised in the border regions of California to a Mexican father and an American mother, knows his topic well and his passion shows here as it does in his longer works.


Those who enjoy this collection would be well served to check out Urrea’s humorous but insightful novel Into the Beautiful North, as well.

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