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Book Review: Traces of Bliss by Cecilia Velástegui

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When Claire, a personal massage therapist, who devotedly caters to the seniors in the rich neighborhood of Los Feliz in Los Angeles, changes the oil she uses to a formula suggested by her grandmother, strange things begin to happen. All of her clients, elderly and well-off, start to experience extremely vivid memories — really more like flashbacks — of their ancestors from centuries ago. While nobody knows quite what to make of this, and all of the caretakers for those elderly people are quite worried about their charges, Alma Ruiz, their less than reputable neighbor, sees the opportunity to become rich by impersonating a doctor of holistic medicine. Alma’s plan is deviously simple – she would make them believe that she can help them continue re-living those memories by staging sessions of memory retrievals.

Such a plan of course requires at least one accomplice, and Alma finds an ideal one in the rather unscrupulous Soledad, the Filipina caregiver of Dr. Nunez. Everything seems to be going according to their plans, but Alma was not counting on the ever-watchful Octavio, the immensely intelligent and powerful gardener, who used to be a powerful shaman in Ecuador. He remaines intent on protecting Claire and her clients, and does so in a very efficient and rather surprising manner.

Traces of Bliss by Cecilia Velástegui was quite unlike any other book I’ve ever read. The author’s ability to seamlessly weave the past and the present together in a fashion that defies description, coupled with a great sense of language and meticulous research, results in a story which at times read like historical fiction, bordering on fantasy, and at others was a very insightful view of class and race issues in contemporary California.

Some of the scenes from the past, as well as the ones from Octavio’s childhood, are almost dreamlike, and some of the ones happening in the seedier parts of contemporary Los Angeles or occurring to its seedier characters are downright disturbingly harsh, yet brilliant. The incredible cast of characters is rich and drawn with lots of detail, and each one of them turned out to be more complex than what one would expect of them at a first glance.

Moreover, the book bursts with a heady mix of Moorish invasions, Basque Witch trials, duende, prehistoric caves, flamenco dancers and gypsies, cross-dressing military officers fighting for the Spanish crown in the 17th century, mermaids, missing teenagers, Sephardic Jews, poets, shamans, involuntary memories, magic mushrooms, violent husbands, crying babies, impersonators, gigolos, and more… and somehow it all makes sense in the end.

Traces of Bliss is a hauntingly beautiful book, which will certainly appeal to readers of intelligent fiction, particularly those who are truly interested in history and not opposed to some novel views. While happiness might not be found easily in this story, it definitely exists, and reminds us time and again what really and truly matters.

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About Maria Juliana Leal-Belloso