The Caregiver, by Samuel Park

36101014There are certain characters that appear in fiction (and some times in life) as background characters: caregivers; servants; gardeners; anyone who’s job it is to make another, richer person’s life smooth and comfortable. As background characters, we rarely get a chance to hear their stories, find out how they got where they are, and, most importantly, what they think. Samuel Park’s The Caregiver is one of those rare looks into the life of a character who represents so many who are bossed and not paid enough to look after people higher up the social ladder. In this novel, we follow Mara Alencar, an undocumented woman from Brazil, as she cares for her latest client. Mara also takes us into her past, so that we know why she left Copacabana and why she can never go back.

In the early 1990s, Mara is living as comfortable life as she can manage as an undocumented immigrant in California. She lives with two other Brazilians in a small apartment. She pays her rent in cash. To make money, she works as a caregiver for people with serious illnesses. When we meet her, Mara works for a rich woman in Bel Air with terminal stomach cancer. Katheryn, Mara’s client, is a withdrawn woman mourning her too-short life and squandered opportunities, as well as mourning her broken marriage. Instead of staying at home, “being sick,” Mara pushes Katheryn into doing things that will make her happy.

This inspirational but low key plot is balanced by the chapters set in the late 1970s in Rio de Janeiro. When she was a child, Mara lived with her single mother, Ana. Ana struggles to make ends meet as a cleaner and voice actress. The two live a hungry existence in Rio’s favelasThey might have gone on with their boom-and-bust life if Ana hadn’t been recruited by a cadre of communist students for a plot to rescue a bunch of their incarcerated comrades. The plot makes their already tenuous status even dicier, while simultaneously teaching Mara a hard, sharp lesson that she cannot entirely rely on her mother to take care of her.

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Affluent neighborhood (left) and a nearby favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Image via Wikicommons)

As the novel moves back and forth between decades and continents, Mara’s character is revealed. In Brazil, she clings to her mother with as much fierceness as she can muster until her trust begins to break. In the United States, Mara is the one people cling to as they suffer their final illnesses. Mara’s matter-of-fact ability to care for others does not come, as our culture might assume of women, from a naturally occurring maternalism. Rather, it seems to come from Mara’s slow realization that everyone needs mothering when there is no mother available. Katheryn has no one, but her money can pay for someone like Mara. However, Mara also comes to learn that caregivers—like mothers—can be blamed and pushed away because of terrible misunderstandings.

The Caregiver is an emotionally complex novel that touches on immigration, racism, and revolution as well as caregiving. There were times when one side of the plot or the other was more interesting, but I felt they balanced each other nicely. This book is meant to make us take a closer look at the people we take for granted. After all, lives aren’t always one long, slow arc from cradle to grave. For many of us, lives are punctuated by abrupt changes, bad luck, and good fortune. From Mara, Ana, and Katheryn, we can learn that we don’t always have to be what others expect. We can transform ourselves.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 25 September 2018.

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