The stories in Catherine Torres’ Mariposa Gang and Other Stories are wistful, and also rather sad. They are about Filipinos whose dreams don’t quite work out the way they intended.
At her best, Torres’ stories leave the reader feeling totally gutted yet not completely sure we know why. Her writing is subtle and restrained, peppered with casually mentioned imagery that evokes a depth and complexity of emotions just beyond our grasp. Take for example the title story “Mariposa Gang,” about a man in Bilibid Prison who joins a volunteer team to capture exotic butterflies for scientific study. One of his fellow prisoners ends up accidentally crushing a butterfly, and other prisoners find butterflies that aren’t actually rare and must therefore be discarded. We later learn the man’s backstory, how he worked on a ship and learned that his daughter had died while he was away. The circumstances of the daughter’s death, and the fallout from the event, are both realistic and tragic. The symbolism of butterflies and its connection to the man and his daughter are hardly obscure, but the image of the crushed wings and the discarded bodies resonate long after the story ends.
Another favourite story for me is “The Bag Lady,” which isn’t quite as heavy on symbolism, but is masterful in its handling of intense emotions. The eponymous Bag Lady is Alice, a former saleswoman with dreams of marrying rich, who ends up marrying a man who’d duped her about the level of his wealth. She ends up working as a domestic helper in Singapore, where she rummages through trash bins for discarded treasures and keeps them stored in her room. What happens to her collection, and later on to her marriage, is heart wrenching yet written with little overt emotion. The result leaves us wanting more — not so much in terms of exposition, but more so in terms of justice and some form of happiness for Alice’s future.
Some stories fell flat for me. Sometimes, it was because it was a tad too obvious, like “Blown Glass”, about a domestic helper and her employer’s Murano vase. The symbolism there was so heavy handed it just left me cold. Other times, I just didn’t connect with the characters nor care about their stories. This was true for “The Sema”, about a love triangle that features a unique ice cream flavour, and “Man of the Cloth”, about a man who becomes a priest. And still other times, I was pretty invested in the story, but the end left me confused about what the point of it all was. This was particularly true for “Mannequins”, about a roommate situation that veered somewhat into gritty crime fiction near the end.
Still, these are minor hiccups in an altogether strong collection. As an immigrant myself, I related hard to “Hibernation”, about an old professor who was abroad during the EDSA Revolution and is compelled to return home for EDSA Dos. And after so many tales of broken dreams, “Cafe Masala” was a wonderful relief. It’s a heartwarming and hopeful story about a woman who dreams of opening a cafe, and the ways in which her relationships with her mother and with her husband help her take a step closer towards this dream. I love the lighthearted banter between husband and wife, and the love they clearly share even when they go through communication snags.
Thank you to the author for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.