Book Review: Coney Island Siren
Author, Theresa Varela
By Julie Carpenter
In one of the first few pages of the book you will read the sentence, “This book is dedicated to the women who have lost themselves in the search for love,” and the story within the pages lives up to the theme. Varela’s book explores domestic abuse and the ripple effect it can have, passed on from one family and relationship to another, causing damage throughout time, generation after generation. More than that, the book is an exploration of one woman’s relationship with herself, a study of how her choices were made, of choices that can never be undone.
Theresa Varela, who won the International Latino Book Award in 2016 for Covering the Sun With My Hand. Dr. Varela also has a PhD in Nursing Research and Theory Development and has experience with domestic assault survivors and the mentally ill homeless population in New York City. As such, she has both the writing chops and the experience necessary to fully explore and develop the topics she writes about in this novel. This is clear in both the character development and the medical settings.
The book’s protagonist is Maggie Fuentes, a young nurse whose relationship with a police officer, Frank, is fraught and becoming more and more claustrophobic and dangerous. The story begins as the couple head to a flea market near the beach on Coney Island, and Maggie finds a journal which increasingly appears to reflect elements of her own life and the choices she is being forced to make, even though the journal’s author, Ellen, lived a century before. This fracture in time is a more important plot point than the reader initially understands. The author moves the reader easily through time as the narrative progresses and the stories weave themselves together.
Both the characters and the settings are compelling. Maggie is a vibrant young woman just getting started on her life and career - easy to love, easy to root for. Frank’s motivations and history is explored as well, complicating his character and making him more than a mere villain, something that’s difficult to achieve in a character who is often a very bad actor. The hospital setting is particularly believable and obviously one with which Varela is familiar.
However, this is not an ordinary treatment of domestic abuse. Varela explores the dead ends into which life can lead us and even explores the metaphysical consequences of choice and chance. Because of this, the book crosses genres as it moves through its narrative arc. Though the style at first seems realistic, it tips into the territory of psychological thriller, and skirts into the supernatural. This is a good thing. The author is not bound by genre conventions and goes where the story takes her, and this story has something to say about the physical reality we know and the greater mystery that surrounds us all.
A stipulation – the book is a little trippy - in a good way. The author moves deliberately, unfolding the bends in time and letting the reader see how Ellen’s journal changes Maggie. After reading it, I felt reality shift a little and I had to spend some time thinking through the ending. The book brings up questions of what life in this material realm means and what might be expected of those who exist in it. While every reader might not want to linger on the philosophical implications of the novel, this sort of thinker is exactly what I’m looking for in a book, and I'm sure I will read it again and again! The story is suspenseful and enjoyable regardless. If you like to think deeply about a story, or if you want a page turner, this book delivers.
I recommend this book to anyone that likes a good story, or to ponder human psychology and the complex narratives we all weave in this material world.
Julie Carpenter is the creator of the Sacred Chickens website. She is dedicated to telling stories and making sure that indie writers and publishers have a way to be heard. She uses narrative, her own and others’, to help interpret the world. She has a Master of Professional Writing from the University of Memphis, with an emphasis in Composition Theory. She wants to bend reality one story at a time. Julie’s work has appeared in Fiction on the Web and will be included The New Guard. She is currently working on a novel.