Havana Lunar transports readers to Cuba circa August, 1992, during the severe economic downturn the Castro regime indifferently labeled "The Special Period." As the book's protagonist, Doctor Manolo Rodriguez, reveals through his cynical, world weary first person narration, the only thing "special" about the time was the extreme hardship the island's populace had to endure.
Plagued by migraines and ennui, Rodriguez spends his days toiling in a community medical clinic. It's here that he meets and falls for Julia, a teenage prostitute who's trying to escape from her pimp, the loathsome Alejandro Martinez. Martinez's brutal decapitation, and Julia's subsequent disappearance, put the doctor in an untenable position, where he is persecuted and molested by both the police and Martinez's unsavory associates. Believing that Julia represents salvation, the doctor tries to protect her even as he struggles to determine her whereabouts.
Subtitled "A Cuban Noir Novel," Arellano's debut certainly lives up to that designation, evoking a sense of hopelessness and despair in its readers, as they are dragged down into the deepest, darkest recesses of the squalid island through the lush, moody, at times hallucinatory prose of its narrator, a man struggling to survive against steep odds. Arellano's depiction of Rodriguez's descent into this figurative Hades is masterful, and worthy of your attention. One caveat to all this praise--if you don't have a working knowledge of Spanish, make sure you have access to a dictionary or a website that does passable translations, as much of the dialogue is rendered in the doctor's mother tongue.