Just one week ago, I was excited to learn of When We Return by Eliana Tobias. NetGalley included it in a newsletter, and I was drawn to this novel set in my husband’s home country, Peru. I hadn’t realized at the time that this is a sequel to the author’s first novel, In the Belly of the Horse; it follows two of the same characters years later. However, When We Return does work as a standalone if you, like me, have not read her previous novel.
Special thanks to NetGalley and River Grove Books for providing me with an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review!
Peru is a country that is close to my heart. My husband is Peruvian and I lived with him in Lima for one year. Due to this connection, I’m always on the lookout for books set in Peru (and South America more widely). When I got a newsletter from NetGalley highlighting a book about Peru, I was instantly intrigued.
Much of When We Return details the terrorism Peru faced in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the toxic presidency of Alberto Fujimori throughout the ’90s, and the aftermath of those hard years. Personally, I went into this novel with a fair amount of knowledge about these events. However, if you are unfamiliar with Peru’s recent history, this book provides enough information to understand the conflict and characters.
Eliana Tobias is ambitious in her writing here, drawing comparisons between different events and uniting characters to make those connections clearer. The main focus is on Otilia and her adult son, Salvador. In the late ’80s, Otilia became a refugee and ended up in the United States, far away from her missing son and husband. It was many years before she and Salvador reconnected – by then he was already married – but her husband, Manuel, had gone missing around the time she left. Salvador was raised by his selfish, thieving uncle, who stole Otilia’s property and sold it during her absence. (Much of this backstory from the 1980s is the focus of the author’s previous novel, In the Belly of the Horse. Sadly, I hadn’t realized this book was a sequel to that until after finishing this one.)
Now, in 2008, Otilia and Salvador are seeking reparations for the theft of their property and possessions and for the division of their family. Manuel is still missing, but presumed dead.
Otilia meets an American man around her age, named Jerry, who has just found out he has an older half-brother who grew up in Bolivia. His father, Milan, was a refugee from Prague, a Jew fleeing from the Nazis, who found a temporary home in Bolivia. After a decade there, Milan had gone on to America, where he married and had Jerry. Otilia and Jerry form a connection, bonding over their shared pasts of trauma: hers firsthand in Peru, his secondhand from his parents.
When We Return draws thoughtful comparisons between the Holocaust and the traumas Peru faced at the end of the 20th century. However, there are stark differences in how each society acknowledge their troubled past. Where Germany has put up museums honoring those who were killed in the Holocaust and places importance on remembrance, it seems that Peru is not yet ready to come to terms with its own horrors. Peru’s conflict is much more recent, and this novel offers discussion of what it means to remember, to learn from mistakes made, and to make reparations to those whose lives were torn apart. It also asks who is responsible for righting past wrongs and how justice can finally be attained. How can people move forward with their lives after such horrors?
While I greatly appreciated these discussions and commonalities, When We Return grew to be a bit monotonous. Each chapter – each scene – focuses on the horrors of the past and present, whether in Europe or South America, but there is no room for the characters to breathe. Although the main events of the book span eight years and there are numerous characters, it is heavy-handed and single-minded in its approach. The novel could have improved with more room for levity and character growth.
Some chapters (one about Jerry’s relative Anna in Prague, one about Otilia’s friend Trudy) could have been cut or greatly reduced; they were slightly irrelevant to the plot, instead serving as further examples of past injustices and sustained psychological trauma. There was already enough to work with in looking at the main characters, so those chapters felt a bit like a distraction.
One further issue is in how the characters talk with each other. Their dialogue doesn’t always feel natural: It is often too serious and even academic. Sometimes it sounds like one is a journalist asking questions of the other, rather than a family member having a heartfelt conversation. This added to the one-note feeling of When We Return.
However, I did like the discussions of grief, intergenerational trauma, and Salvador’s depression. The latter two could have been expanded upon further, but in any case, all were important and thought-provoking parts of the novel.
As much as I really wanted to like When We Return – and as much as it offers genuine value and insight – it felt almost more like it should have been nonfiction. As a novel, it needed a bit more balance between pain and joy. If there had been more focus on the characters or the 21st century plot – and more growth in either – it may have felt more complete and satisfying.
When We Return is highly informative about Peru’s 1980s and 1990s conflicts and the continuing aftermath on its citizens. It also draws thought-provoking comparisons to the more well-known atrocities of the Holocaust. While it offers tremendous value on those fronts, it is written in a more academic style, making for a dry and unflinching read. First engaging with Eliana Tobias’s previous novel, In the Belly of the Horse, may make this a more gratifying experience, and that is a book I would like to read.
Get the Book
You can pre-order When We Return here – it will be available on Tuesday, May 17th as both a paperback and ebook.
Please note that the above link is an Amazon affiliate link and I may earn a commission on any purchases you make.
|When We Return by Eliana Tobias|
|Genre||Literary Fiction; Historical Fiction|
|Setting||Peru; Bolivia; Czech Republic; Germany; United States|
|Number of Pages||297|
|Format I Read||eBook (NetGalley)|
|Original Publication Date||May 17, 2022|
Who should be held responsible for public wrongs?
By 2008, it finally seems that the Peruvian government is ready to make amends to its citizens following the violent guerilla movement of the last three decades.
Otilia and Salvador, a mother and son torn apart during the conflict and separated for twenty years, are eager for the government to acknowledge their pain and suffering, but they hit a roadblock when the government denies responsibility in their legal case.
Things begin to look up when Otilia meets Jerry, a kind man and the son of Jewish parents who escaped the Holocaust. Grappling with his own upbringing and the psychological struggles his parents endured, Jerry is just the person to empathize with Otilia’s situation. Together, Otilia, Jerry, and Salvador must support one another through the turbulent journey that is healing from historical trauma, and through it, they must find the courage to rebuild their lives and open themselves up to love and companionship.
Artfully weaving together different timelines and countries, Tobias examines the nuanced topic of grief a community endures after a collective tragedy. In this exploration of the culture of remembrance following displacement and loss, we discover what happens when our past calls us back to what we must do to achieve justice and reconciliation when we return.
About the Author
Eliana Tobias was born in Santiago, Chile, to immigrant parents who escaped the Holocaust. She graduated from the University of Chile then completed other degrees in early childhood and special education in the United States and Canada. After working in this field in various capacities, including teaching at the National University of Trujillo in Peru, she moved to Vancouver, where she has lived for thirty years and where she discovered her love of writing. Her rich experience of political turmoil, of listening to stories of the Holocaust when Jewish communities in Europe were shattered, of losing family in Chile under military dictatorship, and living in Peru during a time of intense civil conflict, fueled her passion to write about the ways in which people caught in devastation rebuild their lives. Eliana Tobias lives in Vancouver, B.C.
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