David Bergen, author of the Scotiabank Giller Prize winner The Time In Between and a finalist on Canada Reads for The Age of Hope, returns with a new novel that is arguably his best yet. Stranger opens with a doctor’s wife who has travelled from her American home to a fertility clinic in Ixchel, in the highlands of Guatemala. The woman, Susan Mann, hopes the clinic might help her to conceive; she believes having a child will alleviate some of the marital problems that have befallen her and her husband, Eric. The novel, however, is not about the wealthy Americans. Rather, the story focuses on the plight of Íso Perdido, the Guatemalan woman the fertility clinic assigns as Susan’s “keeper,” or caregiver. To complicate matters, Íso happens to be having an affair with Eric, whom she believed to be separated from his wife.
Bergen plunks the reader into this tangled situation, with its heightened tension and thorny politics, right from the novel’s first page. From there, the story moves at full throttle, and Bergen does not take his foot off the gas until the last chapter. Stranger engages with complicated political issues and exposes class, gender, and racial oppression, while also highlighting the inhumane and shocking sense of entitlement on the part of wealthy white Americans. But the novel never gets bogged down by its political agenda. Bergen has a remarkable talent for creating empathy – particularly for the character of Íso – and for keeping his plot zipping along with the speed and intensity of a first-rate thriller. The book manages the rare feat of being profound and important but at the same time absolutely gripping.
Bergen describes the developing relationship between Íso and Eric with such passion, yearning, and tenderness the reader can be forgiven for hoping that the couple might have a future. However, this is no romantic fairy tale: Bergen makes it clear that their relationship could never endure. Eric is a rich American, Íso a poor Guatemalan. The impossibility of this match, and the extent to which the broader society invites Eric to use Íso as a temporary plaything, becomes clear quickly, to both the reader and besotted Íso. Perhaps Íso should have taken Eric’s rudimentary Spanish as a warning: he speaks only the present tense. They have no future.
After Eric suffers a head injury in a motorcycle accident and returns to the U.S. with his wife, Íso discovers she is pregnant. Unfortunately, the infertile Susan also finds out about the pregnancy. The Manns’ privilege and Íso’s abject poverty make it alarmingly easy for Susan to snatch Íso’s baby, just one day after her birth, and claim the girl as her own. Íso does not learn about this “arrangement” until after her daughter is gone. Bergen precisely immerses readers in Íso’s panic and despair. The illegal and potentially deadly cross-border trip that Íso undertakes in an attempt to steal back her own daughter feels inevitable, and as the propulsive plot races on, Íso is placed in increasing danger.
Arriving in the U.S. without papers, Íso is rendered even more powerless and vulnerable than in her Guatemalan home. In America, people – white people, at least – can do whatever they like to her. Sexual assault looms as a constant threat. Ironically, she finds herself invisible except at those moments when she actually needs to be: in the company of aggressive men, her sex and vulnerability make her all too visible. As a foriegner, Íso has no rights, not even over her own body.
Thematically, Stranger shares much in common with Lawrence Hill’s 2015 novel, The Illegal. Like Hill, Bergen critiques a society that abuses and exploits those who most need help. Íso knows she must look for people with “heart” to help her, but for the most part, the U.S. that Bergen plunges her into proves to have little compassion to offer her.
Throughout the narrative, Bergen makes Íso’s fear and desperation palpable. By delving deeply and unsentimentaly into her crisis, he forces the reader to think carefully about the nuances of poverty and exploitation, wealth and power. When Íso finds a job cleaning for a childless couple, the woman who employs her – who also hires topless waitresses for her wild dinner parties – complains about the difficulty of finding workers. Everyone is struggling, the American woman says, and Íso agrees. However, the vast gulf between what each woman means creates painful and poignant irony.
At one point, Íso’s mother claims wisdom must be earned; humans cannot gain wisdom simply from hearing other people’s stories. Stranger proves this formulation wrong. In telling Íso’s story, Bergen offers readers great insight into North American excess and its global costs. The author divides his harrowing narrative into nine chapters, mirroring the nine months of a human pregnancy. The final chapter, thankfully, hints at the birth of a new way of being, one that potentially tilts toward an altered future and gives the reader – at long last – some ray of hope.