Never Look Back – by Lilliam Rivera, Bloomsbury YA, 2020
When Lilliam Rivera conceived the idea of re-imagining the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in a modern setting, she took an artistic risk. Setting this timeless story in a Bronx community where residents have been tested by poverty, racism, and the family fractures which are universal, could have resulted in a novel overwhelmed by obvious literary allusions. Instead, Rivera has created a powerful and compelling story of unique individuals, using the mythological background as a point of departure, not a pre-made script. Readers expecting a modern myth will find instead a nuanced work based on unforgettable characters, rich with elements of mythology, social and political protest, and implicit statements about the power of art.
Pheus and Eury are both in the Bronx for the summer. Both are children of divorce; he is staying with his father while Eury, who lives in Tampa, is visiting with her cousin’s family. Before her move to Tampa, Eury had lived in Puerto Rico, where Hurricane María had economically devastated the island and brought back emotional trauma which had never left her. Pheus has a complicated relationship with his Pops, a man who has failed in some ways to live up to his family’s expectations but has also given his son profound emotional support. Families in this novel are neither idealized nor failures. Rivera avoids both simplistic praise and easy condemnation at every juncture of the narrative.
Pheus is a gifted interpreter of Dominican bachata music as well as of other genres. When he meets Eury, the power of song becomes part of their relationship, a lens through which to he communicates the depth of his feelings about her as well as his confusion about the future. Eury is vulnerable and finds it difficult to trust the ability of anyone to believe in her experiences. The novel’s supporting characters are more than a chorus behind the couple; Rivera has crafted each person in their orbit as believably flawed but redemptive in their love. Eury’s devoted cousin Penelope is unsure how to help her, while Pheus’s friend Jaysen, focused on jumpstarting the young artist’s musical career, also alternates between misunderstanding and empathy. Everywhere in the novel the ambiguity of real life is present.
Then there is evil. Readers are asked to consider, from the novel’s beginning to its conclusion, how cruelty and exploitation manifest themselves in our lives. The subtlety with which the author balances the different explanations for Eury’s suffering is one of the most gripping aspects of the work. Instead of either/or answers there is deep involvement in human nature, and in the political and social inequalities which wreak havoc on people’s lives. Rivera has constructed a complete novelistic universe out of this dramatic tension, one which calls upon myth but is not limited by it.