A flight from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia arrives at the Ninoy Aquino Airport and unloads its passengers and cargo, among them a casket containing a dead woman.
The overseas workers’ office in Manila then sends a notice to the police in the woman’s home town, a certain town by the sea called Paez, to inform her family and fetch the body from the airport.
Paez policeman Walter Zamora is surprised to read the notice. For the Aurora Cabahug he knows is very much alive. Actually, he just saw her last night.
Such goes the inciting incident of Soledad’s Sister, the second novel of UP professor and Philippine Star columnist Jose Dalisay. An earlier short story, The Woman in the Box, served as the basis of the novel; it was actually included as a part of the first chapter. In 2007, Soledad’s Sister was shortlisted as for the Man Asian Literary Prize, the Asian counterpart of the Man Booker Prize in Great Britain.
There are actually other reasons why one should read Soledad, other than its international recognition and the subject matter of overseas contract work that is too familiar for Filipino readers.
First, there are Dalisay’s elegant use of language and detail-rich narrative. Dalisay is fond of using compound sentences, reminiscent of Nick Joaquin’s kilometric sentences that are packed with information as they are long, so sentences seem little stories by themselves. However, Dalisay’s sentences never lose their focus. When read aloud, they smoothly roll off the tongue. For instance:
“… Rory had to remind herself that the word ‘love’ went around the Flame Tree like a five-peso coin given in change and then left on the plate, a paperweight on the receipt, for the waiter’s tip; it wasn’t event enough for Rory’s tricycle ride home.”
The Rory referred to in the excerpt is the 21-year-old star singer of the town nightclub, that is frequented by the vice mayor and Korean engineers alike, the Flame Tree. Rory is nickname for Aurora Cabahug. Yes, she’s the real Aurora, and the dead woman is actually her elder sister, Soledad. Soledad had “borrowed” Aurora’s identity so she could work in Jeddah as a housemaid in the home of a Saudi royalty.
So this novel is basically Soledad and Aurora’s story. However, Dalisay gives even minor characters their own stories: the security guard in the airport, the overseas work agency officer who sent the claim notice, the family who arrives in the airport to claim the body of a kin who was beheaded in Saudi Arabia – which make the novel read like a narrative collage with Soledad and Aurora’s story as the centerpiece.
Other writers would have rendered the story in social realism of the dead serious kind. Dalisay takes another path instead, opting to inject humor in the narrative. The humor comes as depictions of Filipino contemporary life that are inherently comic, for example, the municipal council meeting sounding like an orchestra, what with the members’ cellphones ringing with fancy tunes. Moreover, the depictions don’t strike as satirical, meant to criticize, as what humor in high literature is often used. They are simply depictions of the way of life of a people who never forgets to laugh even in the midst of tragedy. Efforts like these are a breath of fresh air for a literary tradition that has taken itself a little too seriously.
With all these, Dalisay seduces the reader farther into the narrative, offering promises.
When Rory asks Walter to help her find how her Ate Soli died, I expected the rest of the story to be Rory’s quest for justice for her sister: police investigation, a string of new names, an overseas trip abroad.
Then the casket containing Soledad’s body slips into the river along with its thief. I though it simply as a plot twist to complicate things. Rory and Walter would surely find ways how to dredge the casket up from the river bed.
The last two chapters of the novel tell about Soledad’s stay in her employer’s home in Jeddah. There were insinuations that she was murdered. The novel ends with the assistant coroner chatting with his friends at a lounge on the subject of the dead woman washed ashore from the sea. How and why Soledad murdered – and who – no one would ever know.
The novel has ended when it should be just starting.
Until now, I am still reading between the narrative’s words for Dalisay’s intention with the abrupt ending, to no avail. All I can think of why the novel ended that way is that Dalisay is probably on a deadline, no time left to do research. Sol Stein said: don’t write a novel on a deadline.
Soledad’s Sister has done what overseas work has done to Soledad and to the rest of the 600 OFW’s who had gone home as bodies in boxes: it promised a lot but failed to keep them.