Some first novels give the feeling of having grown in a chrysalis, only to emerge at the very height of readiness. Sylvia Sellers-García's When the Ground Turns in its Sleep is just that kind of novel.

After the death of his father and the loss of his job, Nítido Amán has run aground. He travels to Guatemala, his parents' homeland, hoping to discover the truth about their mysterious past. All he has are his father's beautiful but confusing journals. He doesn't know why his family left, or why they won't talk about Guatemala. He arrives in a rural village a few miles from his birthplace to learn that the residents think he's their new priest, and rather than correct them, he plays along, hoping to gain insight into the town and its people. As the realizations unfold, Nítido feels the horror of stumbling among lives disrupted by bloody conflict. He's a stranger here, and yet not a stranger at all.

In graceful prose, When the Ground Turns in its Sleep offers in narrative form an insider's look at the Guatemalan conflict, how it turned neighbors into enemies and ruined the lives of families. And in what might be the book's best asset, accomplished scholar and short-story writer Sellers-García evokes compassion as she describes historical events on the ground level. The author also has a way of bringing to life certain experiences through apt description, like the feeling of missing out on important nuances when speaking a second language or the confusion of trying to piece together the past and distrusting one's memory.

Jessica Inman is a writer and editor in Tulsa.

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