The Cemetery of Untold Stories, by Julia Alvarez

I’ll always remember The Cemetery of Untold Stories as the book I was reading when my uncle died.  I’m not done reading the book yet, as he just passed two days ago, but my mind is filled with so many ideas about where this book crosses with his death, I decided to take the book’s advice, break from my usual habit, and get the words out now.  (Alvarez is such a strong writer, I have little doubt she knows how to end her story well.)

A book about a writer who has so many stories inside her she eventually crumples beneath them from exhaustion and decides to build a cemetery in which to bury them all, is just exquisitely sad, both literally and metaphorically.  There are the stories she writes, the ones she doesn’t, and the ones that exist as tales of her life and those around her.  The tale of my mother’s life this past Monday night is one we would probably call cliché, even banal in its ubiquitous sameness in the tale of modern death: she spoke with her brother on the phone Monday morning and told him to call his doctor about the stomach pains he was experiencing.  Next, she gets a text from him, telling her he’s on his way to the hospital.  She texts back, reminding him to bring his phone.  She waits for news, wondering if he’s forgotten his phone or if something terrible has happened.  She spends hours trying to convince herself it’s not the latter.  Finally, she gets the call, “we’ve been trying to resuscitate your brother for 20 minutes, do you want us to continue?”  “Yes,” is her choked reply, as she disconnects and immediately calls her church to beg for a ride to the hospital.  She waits an agonizing 40 minutes, cursing the fact that the buses don’t run this late, that Uber refuses to pick up at her apartment complex, that she gave up driving in her 50’s after totaling her car.  Finally, she arrives at the hospital to learn he had passed just a few minutes before.

This story, while cliché, will be my mother’s forever now.  And just like Filomena in Alvarez’s novel, it is one she will wish she could edit or rewrite or bury altogether.

Read The Cemetery of Untold Stories, if you are a writer and have stories burning inside you right now.  Take the advice the protagonist, Alma, gives and make sure you let them out before they turn you to ash.  Read it for everything that is to come in this novel that I haven’t read yet.  And read it to know that some stories refuse to be silenced.  So make sure to live your life as a story that is heard.

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