Everly Lederer and K.C. Stites, the central characters in Rachel Kushner's debut novel, Telex from Cuba, are busy coming of age in 1950s Cuba. K.C. is the privileged son of the president of United Fruit, while Everly and her family dwell on the (relatively) less wealthy side of the American enclave. They serve as our eyes and ears in a unique Cuba, sharply discerning the disparities and novelties in their idyllic, yet complex life. But K.C.'s brother has disappeared with rebels associated with Fidel Castro, and someone has set fire to his father's sugar cane, signaling that their world is about to change forever.
This wildly intriguing story is a genius mix of history and fiction. Christian de la Mazière, a real-life French former Nazi and member of the Waffen SS, here takes a fictional turn as an agent of the revolution. Such is also the case with Rachel K, a prostitute murdered in Cuba in the 1930s and elegized in song and a 1973 movie. In Telex from Cuba, she serves as an underground revolucionaria playing multiple sides of the drama. Ernest Hemingway even makes an appearance on a Cuban dance floor. These allusions shine like understated gems in the fabric of the novel.
Some elements are entirely real, of course. The province of Oriente is real, as are—obviously—the Castro brothers and United Fruit. The fictional characters carry on within this historical framework, leaving the reader sure she has gained great insight into the American experience of Cuba just before and just after the revolution. And this is rightly so: Kushner's mother grew up in the same region as Everly and K.C., and Kushner has drawn from this family legacy to create a work of realistic fiction.
The close of the novel finds K.C. reflecting on these events of his growing-up years, wistful for the ornate, exotic beauty of his former life and thirsty for answers about his brother's choices. We're left feeling sorry that even paradise is temporal and fraught with imperfection, but so thrilled by it all that we want to hear the story again.