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by Raul Palma
Dutton, October 2023
288 pages
ISBN: 059347211X

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Capitalizing on Kenneth Branagh's new movie A HAUNTING IN VENICE, an adaptation of Agatha Christie's obscure 1969 novel HALLOWE'EN PARTY, Raul Palma's debut novel A HAUNTING IN HIALEAH GARDENS blends riveting mystery with cultural history, social critique, and a hint of magic. It's a great read and a great harbinger of things to come from Palma.

Raul Palma is a second-generation Cuban-American born and raised in Miami and winner of the 2021 Don Belton Prize for his 2021 short story anthology IN THIS WORLD OF ULTRAVIOLET LIGHT. A HAUNTING IN HIALEAH GARDENS takes place in and around Miami, a world very much hauntedóby the spectre of personal debt. Protagonist Hugo, who migrated to Florida as a teenager, lives in a depressing efficiency. He's a widower, having lost his wife Meli some years ago to cancer. He works as a ghost eradicator for faith healer Lourdes, and he quite believe in the spirit-eradications he performs. If there is magic in his world, he thinks, it's inherent not in the rituals, but in Lourdes. However, he himself is hauntedóby debt. Mostly it's Meli's medical debt, but there is quite a lot of consumer debt, too. This spectre's medium is debt-collection attorney Alexi Chavez, who has made a fortune by harassing his fellow LatinX Floridians to pay their escalating, hopeless debts.

Things begin to look up for Hugo when Alexi's tony Hialeah Gardens home, where his wife and young daughter Dulce live, is haunted, or so he says, by a vengeful spirit. Maybe the vengeful spirit of someone with whom Alexi did business. Now that Alexi has debts to pay, of the supernatural variety, he offers Hugo a great deal: banish the spirits, and Alexi will, with the stroke of a computer key, eliminate his debt balances. All of them.

Of course, Hugo takes the case. While investigating the haunting in Hialeah Gardens, he also investigates his relationship with Meli, his history of migration and trauma, and all the debts of the non-monetary sort that have brought him to this point of paralysis. In saving Alexi, Claudia, and Dulce, can he save himself?

One thing you'll wonder as Palma's plot unspools is whether the ghosts and magic are real. It's best if you keep wondering that until Palma cares to reveal the answer. The influence of Latin American magic realism, especially Borges and Marquez, is detectible but never pretentious. A HAUNTING IN HIALEAH GARDENS works because of its hybridity: its rich mix of genres, rules-of-the-world, types of power, and types of writing. Sometimes it's suspense. Sometimes it's social realism to rival Victor Hugo or Monica Ali. Often, it's poetry. You'll want to trust Hugo to be your spirit guide to its beauty, outrage, and terror.

ß Rebecca Nesvet is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay and co-edits Reviewing the Evidence.

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, October 2023

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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