Chanel Cleeton’s “Next Year in Havana” is a wondrous, historical fiction novel split into two time periods following two very different eras in Cuban history and how they eventually intertwine together.
Set in the late 1950s, one perspective follows Elisa who is living in Cuba on the brink of a massive change in political power. During this time, she falls into a forbidden love affair with a mysterious Cuban rebel fighting alongside Fidel Castro, who is plotting his great revolution.
The second point of view follows Elisa’s granddaughter, Marisol, set during the present day. She is a Cuban-American journalist traveling to Cuba for the first time after her grandmother, Elisa, passes away. She is tasked with the job of spreading her grandmother’s ashes on Cuban soil while also exploring her family’s homeland for the first time. There she falls for a local Cuban man who shows her what it is like to live in present-day Cuba, under an oppressive regime.
“Next Year in Havana” discusses what it means to be Cuban, whether someone is born on the island or not. It touches upon the raw anguish and confusion Elisa feels as her country falls apart at the seams. She must come to terms with the fact that Cuba is changing rapidly and that her family may need to flee the land she’s called home for her entire life.
Marisol, on the other hand, deals with another aspect of being Cuban: the inexplicable feeling of not being either American or Cuban enough. Because she was born in America, Marisol gets a firsthand look at what island-born Cubans have had to deal with for decades. This includes problems such as poverty, oppression and being watched by their government. Her fantasy of what Cuba would be is quickly changed once she realizes that Cubans today have to deal with a hardship that she’s never experienced.
Cleeton masterfully portrays the complexities of what it means to be Cuban through the lens of two different time periods in Cuban history. She showcases the tension of the country on the brink of a revolution and the aftermath of that drastic shift in power.
Both Cuba’s rich history and complex politics are woven into this story in a raw and unfiltered way that will leave readers breathless. Cleeton also brings forth the mixed feelings Cubans have toward their government while also celebrating the beauty and heart of the island and their people.
It is rare to find a novel centered around two resilient Latinas celebrating their love for their culture while also falling in love, despite the odds stacked against them. The vivid descriptions of past Cuban luxury contrasted against Cuba’s present destruction will leave readers in awe of the story Cleeton has to share with the world.
Hopefully, this will inspire other Cuban stories to be told in the future.