In Lotería: A Novel (Harper), Mario Alberto Zambrano uses a piece of Mexican culture to tell a story of human tragedy.
The book’s narrator, 11-year-old Luz Maria Castillo, remembers playing the popular Mexican folk game – similar to bingo – with her friends and family after Mass. After a lifetime of abuse that leads to one dramatic incident, her older sister ends up in the hospital and her father is arrested.
Luz writes in her journal from a youth detention center. For each chapter, Luz uses the image on the lotería card to tell a story from the past. That premise seems like a gimmick, but Zambrano makes it work with his simple prose and a compelling storyline that alternates between the present and the past.
The book is both easy and tough to read. I had to take breaks from it when the situation got too intense. But the writing is easy to understand and it’s written in short chapters, and Zambrano can express raw human emotions that make you ache for Luz.
For example, in the chapter called La Dama, Luz tells God about the mixed feelings she had about her mother, who suffered terrible abuse from her husband – and fought back.
“Sometimes I wondered if she were praying because of something she’d done to Papi. Or something he’d done to her. Or maybe she felt bad for calling him names for hitting him with something she grabbed from the kitchen drawer. I wanted to let her know that I was okay and that You’d understand. I pulled on her dress but she reached out and pinched me without even looking. I didn’t even know what happened, but I remember my skin burning and thinking how much I hated her. I called her names and stuck my tongue when she wasn’t looking even though You were right there between us. But I only hated her for a little while, for as long as I could feel the sting on my arm.”
In El Cantarito, Luz feels guilty when she sees her sister in the intensive care unit.
“Standing there, all of a sudden, I was like a jug of water trying to be taken from one place to another, and little by little, I was spilling.”
In that same chapter, a social worker tries to get Luz to talk:
“It’s like in Lotería, instead of playing the four corners we play the center squares. But midway through the game you find out that you have the corners and you’re missing the center squares. And if you would’ve played the corners you would’ve won already. But that’s how it is, isn’t it?”
Each chapter begins with a gorgeous, full color illustration, done by Jarrod Taylor. The drawings differ from the traditional lotería game, but carry the same spirit.
Lotería turns an ugly subject into a beautiful book.
More about Mario Alberto Zambrano:
Lotería is the first novel for Zambrano, who grew up in Texas and is a former professional ballet dancer. He currently attends the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Source: I received a review copy from the publisher.
3 responses to “Book review: Mario Alberto Zambrano’s “Lotería””
I have this one coming for me from the library.
Ah, didn’t finish my comment. I’m excited to read it because all of the reviews have been so good.
I hope you enjoy it. Thanks for reading!