In Samuel Park’s “The Caregiver”, Mara tends to her charge Katherine, a woman who, at forty-four, is reluctantly facing death at the hands of stomach cancer. Over Katherine’s decline, Mara has taken on the illusionary role of daughter, filling a gap for Katherine that seems permanent, given her diagnosis and lingering divorce from her ex-husband, Nelson. If only she had known just how few chances life gives, she would have made it work before it was too late. It is often implied that Katherine considers leaving her striking yet empty Bel Air home to Mara; who else does she have? For Mara, an undocumented immigrant with little money, it’s a dream just impossible enough to hope for.
Katherine knows little of Mara’s real mother, and nothing of the pair’s hidden past: a past Mara has seemingly left behind. Their story is revealed at length against the poverty of 1970’s Copacabana, Brazil, where Mara’s mother Anna works as a talented but poorly paid voice actress dubbing glamourous American films into Portuguese. We see Anna through the eager and adoring eyes of young Mara; a loving and all-powerful woman, stylishly smoking cigarettes with the world at her fingertips. The reality is that she is desperate and hungry. Her motherly duties lead her to a role far beyond her control when she agrees to a job collaborating with revolutionary militants against the tortuous, corrupt, and truly all-powerful chief of police, Lima. The tragedy that follows is irrevocable, and apparently inescapable for Mara, who ten years later is still unravelling the secrets of the arrangement; who exactly had made a deal with whom? How much responsibility resided with her mother? with Lima? with herself? And why, given her role as Katherine’s caregiver, was she sharing so many of these confidences with Nelson?
In his final novel, Samuel Park tours the bifold nature of love, its inherent secrets, and the poignant baggage so often carried to death’s doorstep. It does so with an ornate prose that leaves one transported; from a sick bed in 1990’s Bel Air to the gritty banks of a bygone Brazil, to the warm hollow of a mother’s lap. It is hard to know who is influencing whom in this veritable magnum opus left to us by Park. Even more powerful than the mystery are the emotive undercurrents which will hit you within the close of the first chapter. This is a mother-daughter duo fit to rival that seen in Janet Finch’s “White Oleander”, minus the malice
Each section of the book is more compelling than the other, almost making you forget that there are in fact two halves of the story unfolding. In fact, one of my only disappointments with the novel was having to give up Mara’s childhood in Brazil to go back to her adulthood in LA. Her past could have stood alone and, at times, I almost wish it had. That, however, would have robbed us of Katherine’s raw valiancy and acceptance in the face of death (an aspect of the book which I loved). For me, “The Caregiver” was everything a book is meant to be; an enlightening escape. Perhaps the compelling elements which comprised it, the palpable wisdoms of Katherine and the love manifested between Mara and Anna, stemmed from the fact that the subject matter was known all too-intimately by Park: a man born in Brazil, raised in LA, and who, after his own long struggle with stomach cancer, recently passed away. To say that his was wonderful writing would be to understate an inestimable truth. Through “The Caregiver”, Samuel Park has left us with a gift.