Most of the reviews and summaries I’ve seen for Patricia Engel’s The Veins of the Ocean are, to put it mildly, off-putting. To be fair, the book does open with a horrific, shocking crime and I picked up the book expecting to be about that crime. Instead, I found a meditative book about the consequences of incarceration, captivity, and the prisons we build for ourselves through guilt and obligation. This book is so full of food for thought that I read it in one day.
Reina is a dedicated sister. It’s no wonder that she’s devoted to her brother Carlos, considering that her mother has been on the look out for a new man to keep her since Reina’s father hanged himself after trying to drown Carlos by throwing him off a bridge into the ocean. Even after Carlos commits a similar crime and is sentenced to death, Reina visits and helps pay legal fees for seven years. When Carlos hangs himself in his cell, Reina is cut loose and heads down to the Florida Keys, planning to start a new life where no one knows what her brother did.
All of this happens in the first third of The Veins of the Ocean and serves as a launching point for Reina to come to terms with the tragedies of her family’s past and her role in Carlos’ crime. The narrative and Reina’s mind constant return to what the men in her family have done and Carlos’ time in prison. Reina’s sense of guilt leads her to punish herself, to retreat from relationships and life. It’s only after she meets Nesto in the Keys and starts to work at a dolphinarium that she begins to come out of her self-imposed prison.
The parallels between Carlos’ incarceration and Reina’s punishment of herself grow as we learn more about Nesto’s ties to his family in Cuba and the behavior of a rescued dolphin in the dolphinarium. As the novel developed, I started to see a book that wasn’t so much about the awful choices we face and crimes we might commit, but rather stories that warn against imprisoning living things. The dolphin and Carlos were not meant to be kept in solitary cages; they slowly go bad. Reina and Nesto’s prisons are more complicated, because they are self-imposed. Both of them are deeply tied to their families. Nesto wants his family to escape Cuba the way he did, but he is constantly thwarted by bureaucracy and his ex-wife’s fear of change. Neither he nor Reina can move on with their lives until they learn to let go.
I was very moved by The Veins of the Ocean and will be thinking about it for a long time. Arguing that captivity is destructive is fairly simple, but Engel complicated things for her characters to create rich ethical dilemmas. Carlos killed a child and must be punished. But is locking him in solitary for seven years just? Is the rescued dolphin safer in captivity even though it can’t adjust to the tedium? Should Reina and Nesto cut their ties to family because their families are preventing them from finding happiness? The Veins of the Ocean has so many delicious questions to think about. It’s the kind of book I can see myself pushing on other readers, just so that I have someone to debate with.
Bibliotherapeutic Note: Recommend this book for readers who are trapped by toxic family situations or who otherwise need to learn to put down the burdens that are keeping them stagnant.