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  • Writer's pictureThe Fiction Fox

Review: The Cemetery of Untold Stories - Julia Alvarez

Genre: Literary Fiction, Magical Realism

Published: Algonquin Books/Recorded Books Audio, April 2024

My Rating: 3.5/5 stars

“It’s a cemetery for stories” the woman replies. “con su permiso, how does one bury a story? If a story is never told, where does it go?” the woman answers with a question. The story she told her sister, where has it gone all these years of her silence. It’s a question Filomena has never asked herself before.”

This is one of those novels where I feel conflicted on how I should go about rating it. Based on my own experience, this was a 3-star read; well-written and polished, but lacking the emotional resonance to make it truly memorable. That being said, objectively, I think this deserves more than that. I can 100% picture a large audience that will adore this book, and will hail it as the “instant classic” the blurb promises.

The story:

Cemetery of Untold Stories is a novel about storytelling, and the way our own narratives and how we choose to pass them on define our legacy. We follow Alma, an acclaimed author nearing the end of her life, as she inherits an unwanted plot of land near her hometown in the Dominican Republic. She immediately has a vision on what to do with the land: dedicating it to be a place to bury her untold stories—literally. She creates a graveyard for the manuscript drafts and revisions, and the characters whose lives she tried and failed to bring to life and who still haunt her.

During her time putting together this cemetery, Alma begins to relay these stories to her groundskeeper Filomena, and soon the two form a beautiful connection to each other, and these stories alike.

What I liked:

Already a veteran author, it’s beyond doubt that Julia Alvarez knows how to tell a vivid story. Cemetery of Untold Stories lives up to that legacy. The prose polished to perfection, its (at times almost meta) themes of storytelling and creating ones own legacy are consistent throughout and feel quite personal to the author as well.

I can always appreciate a novel with a strong sense of setting and place. Through the combination of her atmospheric descriptions, as well as the frequent intersplicing of Spanish sentences, Alvarez honors her own Dominican roots, as well as those of her characters.

In more than one way, the story feels very personal to the author, paralleling elements of her own life as a storyteller too. I appreciated that human connection, and think it added to the strengths of the book.

What I didn’t like:

My main complaint is that this novel, ironically, felt a bit like a cemetery of “lost stories” in itself at times: a collection of scraps that happen to be put in the same place over time, but don’t share a deeper connection. It brought a bit of a disjointed feeling to the whole at times, and made it hard for me to follow the different storylines.

That disconnection carried through the entire story for me. Do you know that feeling of walking across a cemetery ground and feeling slightly empty upon realizing that all these gravestones represent full people and lives lived… Yet because all you see of them is their headstones, you can never truly grieve or care for them, the way you would someone you knew personally? That’s the way I felt about all Julia Alvarez’s characters; like they were cardboard (or gravestone) outlines, slightly too polished and slightly too impersonal to care about…

Despite the fact that I didn’t personally resonate with the story, I still feel comfortable recommending it, especially to fans of the likes of Isabel Allende (whom work I personally feel very similarly about).

The audiobook is a great way to experience this novel, specifically considering its themes of oral traditions and telling stories over the course of generations. The narrator does a beautiful job voicing the characters and does their bilingual nature justice.

Many thanks to Algonquin and Recorded Books for providing me with an audio-ARC in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

Find this book here on Goodreads.


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