The Caregiver by Samuel Park, who died last year from stomach cancer at the age of 41, turns out to be mysterious in exciting wonder, suspense, and meditation, with an ending that defies expectations but is psychologically the richer for it. This is the kind of story that haunts as it informs about a culture and history many Americans know little about — Rio, beyond Carnival and its exotic “glorious, bohemian past,” now “erased by constant violence and muggings.” Here’s a country in freefall from hyperinflation, military dictatorship, and endemic corruption.
Park was born in Brazil but raised in Los Angeles. He lived in Chicago for a while, where he taught English and creative writing at the university level (he earned a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California). Not incidentally, the book ends with a reprint of a January 2017 essay — “I Had a 9 Percent Chance. Plus Hope” — Park wrote that appeared in The New York Times Sunday Review section. It’s a kind of coda to the novel and well worth reading. And rereading. Cancer figures in the tale, though not essentially, even if it’s obvious that Park knew his way around its etiology, treatment, and social effects.
The Caregiver centers on the bond between a mother and daughter in the Copacabana section of Rio, their fierce love for each other — the mother, Ana, ferociously protective of her out-of-wedlock child, and the child, Mara, lonely, frightened, totally dependent on her mother. Their mutual need is heartbreakingly evoked with descriptions from all five senses but touch and smell are particularly effective. Secondary characters along the way, a sweep of 14 years, offer care and compassion, but they serve mainly to reflect the extraordinary attachment of mother and daughter.
Park confidently relies on small telling details to propel his narrative, moving back and forth between Copacabana in the 1980s and Bel Air, CA later on. The sections on Rio when mother and daughter lived in the favela (low-income slum) show the country rife with military violence and poverty. Ana works as much as she can as a voice-over actress, dubbing American films into Portuguese. One day, however, she reluctantly accepts a real-life acting job for student revolutionaries who engage her to deceive the police chief, a man known for brutality and torture. While she diverts him, they will spring their compatriots from prison. What happens, though, becomes the defining event of the relationship between mother and daughter, but Mara does not learn the full truth until she is an adult in America, long after her mother, from whom she was estranged, has died from heart disease.
In a prologue that’s set in Bel Air in the early 1990s, Mara, now 26, is working as a caregiver for a 40-something wealthy woman who has cancer. Tidbits of class and culture emerge as telling asides, as when Mara notes that she’s just seen her employer’s ex-husband putting on his shoes, which “back in my native Brazil was either an after-thought or a non-issue.”
Park presents America by way of showing Mara’s new land as an immigrant experience. Though she’s been in the country 10 years (undocumented), she still can’t get over how much in America is free — doggie bags at restaurants, clothing catalogues, public bathrooms. She also takes in stride the racist road-rage of a stranger, eager “to screen any brown person he deemed unworthy of sharing his home.” He demands her name. She says “Lucille. Lucille Ball,” and drives away.
Toward the end of the novel a theme emerges: that life is a party. Mara’s seen the cliché on a greeting card. The irony is — and here Mara may be speaking for Park — it’s true. Life is indeed like a party: “Some people had to leave in the beginning. Some people left in the middle. Some people got to stay until the end. But everyone got to be in it, at least for a part of it, and wasn’t that what mattered?” With “stamina and genetics and luck,” you could stay to the end, but even if you didn’t, “you got a chance to taste its flavors, to mingle with its strange creatures, to try out new tricks.”
The Caregiver fascinates in what it shows of Rio and of America by way of America’s main export, pop culture, but the heart of the novel is an exploration of the human heart — what it gives and needs to give, the impulse to care, to take care. The achievement of The Caregiver is to suggest that love may be more important than truth. Think about it.