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Rich and Strange: "Santos de Sampaguitas" by Alyssa Wong, Part 2

Last week I reviewed Part 1 of this story; this week I’m reviewing Part 2, as well as reflecting on the story as a whole.

Briefly: it made me gasp and cry in that mixture of shocked, satisfied pain that comes from a story that’s managed to truly, suddenly surprise you with the places to which it was willing to go, the comfort it was willing to strip away. I recently had the experience of moving my body through increasingly heated rooms before plunging it into a pool I hadn’t been told was not just cold, but icy–and the experience of this second half was very similar. I hadn’t realized, after reading Part 1, quite what kind of story this was.

Spoilers follow!

I am, I admit, disproportionately vulnerable to narratives that have loving sisters in them. I have a sister who is dearer to me than I can say, and it’s actually relatively rare that we see stories in which sisters are friends instead of rivals, antagonists, thorns in each other’s sides. So I welcomed seeing that Silvia and Tín care about each other, and the following passage fairly melted my heart:

My sister, now swollen with the child growing inside her, doesn’t seem jealous of all the attention I’m getting. Instead, she watches beatifically, the entire room gently lit with her presence. Lacing my fingers with hers, I cannot remember a time in the recent past when I have been happier. The hole in my heart torn by Nanay‘s death seems smaller with each passing moment and each beat of my sister’s pulse against mine.

Reading this now, it seems so heavily foreshadowed that something dreadful will happen to Silvia’s baby, so obvious a thing, that I’m astonished I missed it; in fact, I find myself wondering now whether it’s possible in fiction for pregnancy to be anything less or more than a plot point.* But I didn’t see it coming. In spite of having accepted a poem titled “Manananggal” literally the day before, I didn’t see it coming. For this I tip my imaginary hat to Wong for writing such engaging character voices that I was too busy desiring more of them to think about what might come next.

*Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to write a story in which a woman is pregnant and she is neither pregnant with A Powerful Being NOR going to miscarry NOR give birth in the story. She is just pregnant! And not with plot possibility!

And what comes next is so keen a betrayal that it left me breathless and wanting to applaud.

Reading this story has made me articulate to myself that it isn’t about what the twist is in a story — it’s how the twist fits into the story, how the story prepares the ground for it. Consider the oft-cited truism about how dreadful are “it was just a dream!” styles of twist: if the only way you can make your story interesting is by denying it ever happened, you’ve already failed. On the other hand, “the friend was an enemy all along!” is also a ubiquitous sort of twist — but its power relies entirely upon the stakes you’ve raised. If you make the friend wonderful in textured, nuanced ways, if you starve your protagonist for friendship, if you’ve made your readers root for their relationship and treasure the sweet displays of enthusiastic consent between them — congratulations. You’ve earned the guts into which you twist your narrative knife.

And even once it had happened, there was some ambiguity to keep me guessing until the resolution; was it Rodante or Rodante’s mother who was the manananggal? Was Rodante or his mother an aswang, with the manananggal quality the consequence of the kapre’s curse? I’m ignorant enough of folklore from the Philippines that I was unsure about the mechanics of the kapre’s curse, as well as the difference between aswang and manananggal; the dead god tells Tín that it will show her where her mother “hid her legs,” implying that Tín’s mother, an aswang, also had the bifurcated body of a manananggal. Perhaps the former don’t need to eat foetuses? I’m still not sure, but it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the story at all, nor the bittersweetness of Tín’s revenge.

It occurs to me, now, that the story itself was bifurcated: a lulling first half of relatively benign seemings, before the sudden attack of the second half plunging its mouth into this poor reader’s heart. Did the editors at Strange Horizons intend to make a manananggal of the story? Did they? One wonders!

A concluding word on sisters: as much as Silvia’s pain affected me, and as much as Tín’s love for her moved me, I have to recognize that Silvia was less a character than a plot device. I don’t think she speaks more than two words in the whole story (though she repeats them), and her main purpose is to be discussed by others, be they Ma’ams, servants, or Tín and her dead god. She has absolutely no agency, which I thought was a missed opportunity; did Silvia not know her mother was an aswang? Did she recognize what attacked her? Does she know what her sister is? I would have liked to know, to see her engage Tín in conversation even once.

That said, the pacing, the style, the character voices, the sidewise critiques of class and ableism, were all superb. This is the first story of Wong’s I’ve read, and I recommend it wholeheartedly, and will be certain to look out for more of her work in future.

If you enjoyed the above review and want to support me in writing more, donations are very welcome.

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