Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
  • Home
  • About
  • Archive
  • Bio Notes
  • Bookshelf
  • Contents
  • Submit
914 words
SHJ Issue 10
Fall 2014

Midnight Rumba by Eduardo Santiago

Reviewed by Arlene Sanders

If you can think of anything more graceful, more passionate than that wild, exotic dance called the rumba—tell me, quickly, what it is. That Eduardo Santiago was drawn to that dance is no surprise. His writing is graceful, sensuous and passionate, like the rumba itself. In an interview, when asked how he writes, Santiago replied, “...basically I just cut open a vein and I write until I’m out of blood.”

Midnight Rumba must have taken a lot of “blood” to create. In my opinion, the writing in this novel is even stronger than it was in his magnificent Tomorrow They Will Kiss. Perhaps this is because the artist is more mature, more confident. Or maybe it’s because the subject—the violent upheaval in Cuba when Fidel Castro and his rebels overthrew the Batista regime in the 1950s—simply demanded a certain degree of artistic brutality in order to tell the story.

The tropical island of Cuba—“emerald alligator asleep in a sapphire sea”—is the real protagonist of this novel, with its explosive chapter of history mirroring the lives of a beautiful young woman, Estelita de la Cruz, her father, her friends, and the man she loves.

One of Santiago’s greatest strengths as a writer is his remarkable understanding of women and his ability to create deep, complex, and finely nuanced female characters. Many women writers understand women: consider the emotional richness and complexity of Scarlett O’Hara, Jane Eyre, Rachel Sangalletti, Celie Johnson, Shug Avery, Jo March, Catherine Earnshaw, and the second Mrs. de Winter, and on and on—the list is endless.

But in my opinion, the list of male writers who truly understand women is short. Eduardo Santiago (Estelita de la Cruz, Aspirrina Cerrogordo), Gabriel García Márquez (Fermina Daza), Michael Ondaatje (Katharine Clifton), and D. H. Lawrence (Gudrun and Ursula Brangwen) are surely on that list. (But if you are going to include Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, and Hester Prynne on a list of literary characters crafted true to the heart and soul of a woman, then you and I have had it.)

Evoking human feelings is Santiago’s great gift, and we see it throughout everything he writes. We know how Estelita felt as she “looked at her face before applying fresh makeup and wondered if there was anything new in the mirror. Did she seem different? She peered closely into her eyes, and she saw it. Yes, way in the back, in a place no one could see, was a woman who’d just made love for the first time.”

We empathize with Delfino as he pleads with his wealthy father to help rescue a friend arrested by Batista’s men:

“‘Son,’ [Delfino’s father] said, standing up, ‘there’s nothing anyone can do. Your friend is dead.’

“Delfino stood up to leave but something was missing. He felt as if everything beneath his neck was gone. He knew he had a face, because he was looking at his father, who was moving quickly about the room. And he knew he had legs, because he was still standing. But where his heart should be, his guts, his lungs, all of that was missing.”

Violence erupts across Cuba, where “Bodies of men hung from trees. Groups of women gathered around them, wailing and shrieking with escalating abandon, as if their very souls had been set afire.”

And in Estelita’s beloved Havana, “Squares of light streamed from vacant windows, embroidering the streets with luminous geometric patterns that followed one another, stretching on and on into infinite darkness. Soft shadows borne of the dim streetlamps extended along the cracked pavement, folding and dipping, molding themselves onto the terrain, wrapping around trees, creeping through gutters and dipping into watery, quivering potholes, elongating into the distance, pointing the way, offering vain direction like enormous, cautioning fingers.”

The description of torture that awaited Cubans captured by Ventura Novo, “the killer from Havana’s Fifth Precinct, as famous for his massacres as for his stylish suits,” was too horrifying for me to read. I had to skip that part.

Eduardo Santiago is a kind and generous man. His love and compassion for Cuba and the wonderfully drawn characters who inhabit his novels are evident throughout his work. Santiago is a visual artist—to read the book is to see the film. Except that in the film, the rumba, the actual dance, will surely be featured much more prominently than it is in the book. The rumba is visually so compelling that it would simply have to be. However, it’s nearly impossible to capture dance in prose, and except for short passages describing dances by Aspirrina, Santiago, wisely, did not attempt it. (By the way, if you aren’t familiar with the rumba, may I respectfully suggest that you go to Bing or YouTube and catch some videos of professionals or contest competitors performing this remarkable dance.)

Create Space Publishing (2013)

Cover photo of Midnight Rumba by Eduardo Santiago

Amazon dot com

In my review of Tomorrow They Will Kiss, I said that Eduardo Santiago, in my opinion, eventually will win the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished fiction by an American author. After reading Midnight Rumba, I’m more convinced of that than ever.

If you enjoy the work of Márquez and Hijuelos, you will surely welcome Santiago’s novels. For those of us who have little understanding of Cuban culture, after reading the work of Eduardo Santiago, we will have so much more.

That is one of Santiago’s great gifts to his readers, and I am deeply grateful for it.

—Previously published in Goodreads (24 February 2014); reprinted here by author’s permission

—A slightly longer version, which contains text specific to Amazon reviewers, appears at author’s website and at Amazon.


SHJ Issue 10
Fall 2014

Arlene Sanders

is an Appalachian Mountain writer. A lifelong Southerner, she is a native of Virginia, where she writes in the Blue Ridge Mountains bordering the Shenandoah Valley.

Tiger Burning Bright: Stories (Jefferson Press, 2008) is her first book. Ms. Sanders has received four Pushcart Prize nominations for stories from that collection: “Tiger Burning Bright,” “Auction,” “Fire and Ice,” and “Wish You Were Here.”

Her fiction has been published in numerous literary reviews, including Cairn: St. Andrews Review, The Dos Passos Review, The MacGuffin, Perigee, Pindeldyboz, Sanskrit Literary Arts Magazine, Slow Trains, Sound & Literary Art Book, Sugar Mule, and Taj Mahal Review.

Additional details, plus an interview, are available at:

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury