Captivating and breathtaking don’t cut it when searching for words to describe The House of Broken Angels, but they come pretty darn close. My body was firmly planted on my couch from the second that I opened the first page and started to read about delirious funerals to when I closed the book after reading the author’s note and acknowledgements.
The scope of the novel is at once wide and narrow, in that the live-action of the story takes place across only two days, while the shifting narration and fluid nature of perspectives also allow for nuanced glimpses at the past which contextualize the present action. Given that there is so much fluidity, there is a worry that the reader could get lost, but the author has helpfully split the novel into four clear sections, including chapter titles in the two larger sections, and time stamps when relevant, which all ground the reader and allow for a structure within which to understand the story.
And what a story! The House of Broken Angels centers around the family of Miguel Angel de la Cruz, who is affectionately called Big Angel, a term of affection which also functions as a distinction from his younger half brother, Little Angel, the other character who receives most of the third person limited time. Readers also see things through the lens of Perla, Big Angel’s wife; their children, Minnie, Lalo, and Yndio; and Perla’s sister ‘La Gloriosa’, along with a few other supporting characters. I could go on, but I have other details I’d rather obsess over, like how funny this book is for a book about death.
The two days that the book covers in real-time are both celebratory and sad. Big Angel is dying from a rather vicious bout of cancer, and the second day, Sunday, is his 70th and last birthday party, while Saturday is the day that the family buries his mother, who had died a week earlier, just shy of her hundredth birthday. This book is definitely one that tugs at the heartstrings, but it’s also a book that was constantly making me laugh. A lot of it was rude humor, and a lot of it was family shenanigans, but most of it was just that Luís Alberto Urrea has a quirky way of describing the characters and the situations they find themselves in that makes me giggle.
One of my favorite things about this novel is the shifting themes of how language, race, culture, family, and various forms of identity all play into each other throughout the novel. The most obvious of these as a reader is the language — while The House of Broken Angels is a primarily English-language book, there is a healthy amount of Spanish included in the text, and what little translation there is remains primarily implicit, if it appears at all. That is not to say that one needs to know Spanish to read this book; I think it would still be plenty enjoyable regardless, but I do think that my knowledge of the language enhanced the experience.
The dynamics of race, citizenship, and cultural heritage are also explored in rich detail throughout the text, as it is made explicitly clear to the reader who falls into what category of citizenship and the consequences of their status, what shade a character’s skin is and why and how that matters, who is or isn’t Mexican, and above all who counts as inside or outside the family. The core message of the book is really about bringing family together, which I think that The House of Broken Angels does well, if imperfectly.
A critique that I do have of the novel is that the queer family member who is estranged from the rest of them feels a little shoehorned in and I feel that the character and their story could have been more developed rather than what little we were given. I was also dismayed by the sheer amount of hypersexualization, particularly of the women, as I struggle to think of a time where there were female characters that weren’t being seen through the lens of men or having thoughts about men in their narration, almost always sexual in nature. The women in this novel have so much drive and passion and potential, but I feel as though it often gets somewhat clouded by the need to always make them sexy. I don’t think that those things are mutually exclusive – of course they aren’t – but the world doesn’t need to revolve around sex and at some points at this novel it felt as though it did, which definitely detracted from the story.
Overall I did enjoy the book, and I am disappointed in myself for letting it sit on my shelf since July, but I do think that I made a good decision waiting to read it because this book is incredibly heavy. For all that it does have those funny moments I mentioned earlier, it also has plenty of gut punches, and could be triggering for anyone with a history with gun violence, police violence, domestic abuse, and (as was the case with me) recent deaths in the family, particularly in the case of slow death from disease. So! This is a recommended read, but please do keep in mind that this is an emotional book, and being in the right headspace is important. I loved reading it when I did, but if I had read it six months prior it probably wouldn’t have been the best idea for my mental health. Thankfully, January 2019 is fairly OK for me so far (fingers crossed!)