A book review by Alexander Castiglione
I remember vividly my father telling me “Your heart is the size of your fist.”
I don’t know why, but that stuck with me. Sometimes I’d look at my hand, clench a fist, and think “this is your heart.” Then I came across this title by Sunil Yapa, his first novel, and knew I had to read it.
Set in the turbulence of the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999, a nation divided, and on the cusp of the post-911 world we find ourselves today; it is a tale of heartache and loss, but also of redemption and self-realization. Despite it being set some 17 years ago, there are significant echoes of current political climes and social injustices which we still see today.
Broad strokes: the narrative follows several wildly different characters on intersecting trajectories, the protagonist being a young man named Victor, who just returned to Seattle after running away for two years. From the time he was 16, Victor was a wayward, world traveling soul; looking for something, anything. We also meet King, an eco-radical in a sense, and Park, a radical policeman in a totally disparate sense. There are other players within the piece, and they all gel together (symphonically in this writer’s opinion) to create a tapestry of human conditions I think many of us, even if we didn’t stand resolute protesting the WTO, our muscles aching from baton strikes, can relate to.
From the alienation of a boy looking for his place in the world, to the stoicism of a hardened police chief trying to quell a rebellion, all the way over to the older man, who practiced non-violence his entire adult life, and protested every atrocity along the way, media coverage or not. Yapa creates a mosaic of love, hate, anger, pain, loss, self-discovery, doubt, power, and most of all love; that I think we all can agree makes up the mosaic of human existence. Each tile no more or less important than the last, each emotion just connected to the other.
His prose is beautifully written, and despite having very deep passages that read more like a pastoral hymn with monkish undertones than a novel written in 2016, it is powerful. Very powerful in fact, much like the title of this book which drew me in; and like a fist, the heart is capable of pain: both inflicted it, and being afflicted by it. Just ask anyone who has taken a shot to the jaw, or missed and hit a brick wall in error; and perhaps I’m over analyzing – but I think this is an exceptional metaphor for the heart: the paradox of vulnerability and impenetrability. It can be broken and yet is still unbreakable, a marvelous organ indeed.
The actual delivery is not the only beautiful element to this 300-or-so page novel, but the actual substance. Yapa weaves a tale of great depth, capturing the illogicality of our actions and relationships and nailing the mysteriousness of ourselves to ourselves. Even set against the backdrop of the WTO protests, with turmoil in the streets, Molotov cocktails streaking through the night sky, and rubber bullets bellowing from police shotguns; there is still a great contrast when this tumult is compared to that of a boy looking for his father, a girl looking for resolution, a diplomat looking for a way to his meeting. Each of us, he implies, is amidst a riot all their own. All sides of the story are exposed, and all characters are given their humanity by Yapa.
Despite Your Heart Is A Muscle The Size Of A Fist being Yapa’s first novel, I am absolutely certain it will not be his last. It’s poignant prose and outstandingly researched setting juxtaposed to round, real, relatable characters is not something easily attained, and the thoughtfulness shines through. It’s a tender novel, with (at times) grizzled characters, which are surrounded by more than just CS Gas and pepper spray, but their own demons.