Holiday Heart by Margarita García Robayo review – immigrant swansong

Holly Williams
Photograph: Hoberman Collection/UIG via Getty Images

Colombian novelist, essayist and short story writer Margarita García Robayo is well known across Latin America, and widely translated, though only one collection, Fish Soup, has been available in English. Now, Charco press has followed that with Charlotte Coombe’s translation of García Robayo’s 2017 novel Holiday Heart, a novella that dissects a failing marriage with surgical precision.

After 19 years, Lucia and Pablo have stopped even “wondering why they’re still there, oozing indifference towards one another”. Then Pablo ends up in hospital with “holiday heart” – cardiovascular disease that often strikes around Christmas and new year, due to overindulging in rich food and booze. It’s not the only thing he’s been indulging in: Lucia is informed that Pablo was delivered to hospital by one of his students. She leaves their home in Connecticut to go to her parents’ holiday apartment in Miami, taking their twin children with her.

Lucia and Pablo are Colombian immigrants who have made gilded lives in the US. But where Pablo still feels a deep yearning for his home country, Lucia revels in her rootlessness, heaping scorn on any wistful patriotism from her husband. García Robayo traces the fault lines left by the pressure of needing to be perceived as successful immigrants, and an accompanying corrosive snobbishness. Lucia and Pablo are casually cruel about fat people, poor people, black people, fellow Latinos.

It feels like there’s scope for a larger work exploring these tensions – the complexities of the immigrant experience, and attendant anxieties around status, class and taste, form just a simmering backdrop to a tightly focused portrait of a relationship. García Robayo slowly reveals infidelities, familial tensions and conflicted feelings about parenthood (Lucia is resentful of what motherhood demands; Pablo is jealous of how it has consumed her). She writes with caustic insight, brittle humour and a fair whack of cynicism: as a portrait of people coming apart, Holiday Heart is brilliant, but what you don’t get much of is why they were drawn together in the first place.

Holiday Heart by Margarita García Robayo is published by Charco (£9.99). To order a copy go to Free UK p&p over £15