Books

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

After a string of lighter reads, I was wary about reading something with such a heavy premise (because – you know – the world), but I’m so glad I did, because this novel in verse is one of my favourite books of this year. Clap When You Land follows two 16-year-old half-sisters whose father dies in a plane crash during his routine summer visit from New York, where Yahaira lives, to the Dominican Republic, where Camino lives.

Parallel Lives

The contrasting dual narrative reveals that Camino and Yahaira are not quite twins. They are born a few months apart. They only share one parent. They are strikingly similar in appearance, save their complexion. Clearly two halves of the same coin, though unbeknownst to them, because they have no idea the other exists. They’re products of their shared father’s double life, separated strategically by an ocean, experiencing different seasons of his affections.

“Papi was gone three-fourths of each year…”

Living in a poorer nation, it is reiterated that Camino’s life is much more insecure. It seems that predation is everywhere, in this place where many turn to grisly means to make ends meet. We see an instantaneous shift in her financial situation when her Papi dies and his remittance payments stop, giving way not only to grief but mounting panic. But, this is juxtaposed with the undeniable beauty of her country, life and community, in the barrio that she adores.

“Papi left every year from June until September.”

Where Camino is driven and mature, Yahaira is slightly more shiftless. Perhaps, she has the luxury of being so in a way her sister doesn’t, inevitably less worldly-wise. She dutifully meets parental expectations but doesn’t seek to strive past them. However, she’s undeniably confident, creative and bright. Her story touches on the specific nuances of her identity as a Dominican girl raised in New York, and colourism in the way that her darker skin is treated by certain family members.

The Best of Men?

“Papi, the big hot boiling sun we all looked to for light”

Given that the girls are still teens, their coming-of-age is on display, though grimly tinged by grief. Womanhood is explored through the many titles that can be wielded  – sister, friend, lover, mother, aunt and wife. Their growing pains are different – however, something that is importantly explored is the way that both girls, not even of age, already see and feel the indignities of misogyny, amongst other injustices. But Papi, the main man in their lives, shines in their hindsight, bursting with life and charisma. When certain truths rise to the surface following his death, they reel as their memories are prodded and challenged.

Parting Thoughts

I was honestly scattered after reading this book. Acevedo’s writing is stunning. Her words are like thawing ice – they trickle over you and assault your senses. I haven’t read a novel in verse before, so this was a new way of processing. Verse gives a lot more room to play around with form and structure, as well as language of course. It was so interesting to see the raw emotions of both girls – shock, rage, emptiness, agitation, etc. –  visualised on a page.

It’s noteworthy that the premise is inspired by a real-life event – the 2001 American Airlines Flight 587 crash, the second deadliest aviation accident in US history. Acevedo talks in her Author’s Note about how it rocked the New York Dominican community, and how it’s side-lining in the shadow of 9/11 compelled her to write this story. She succeeds beyond measure in writing a tragically beautiful ode to culture, family, love and, ultimately, life.

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