Five Midnights by Ann Davila Cardinal (Tor, 2019)
Reviewed by Maayan D’Antonio
16-year-old Lupe Dávila is a bi-ethnic “Gringa-Rican” from Vermont on her way to spend the summer in Puerto Rico with her father’s family. Only this time she is going alone, as her father has decided to stay behind. Lupe is desperate to experience Puerto Rico without the constraints of her uncle, the police chief, who is in the middle of a very perplexing murder case. And though he and Lupe often discuss his cases, as they both share a love of solving murders, this time he refuses to talk with her about it.
On the cusp of 18, Javier Utierre is struggling to hold on to his sobriety when Vico, a childhood friend, is found dead. When a second friend mysteriously dies, the witness goes mad with talk of a supernatural creature. When both Lupe’s cousins and Javier’s lives hang in the balance, the two team up to try and figure out the identity of the killer. As the two dig deeper into the mystery and search for Lupe’s cousin Izzy, they start to suspect that the killer could in fact be something inhuman.
Dávila Cardinal has been to the island multiple times, for both vacation and research, which only adds to the richness of the Puerto Rico she describes in her pages. From its sounds, smells, tastes and colors to the ongoing struggle of the island and its residents, the reader will truly be able to see the tin roofs of El Rubi, the plants, the shoreline and the traditional dishes. In an interview I had with Dávila Cardinal she said that she’s in love with Luquillo beach, that she always tries to go to the El Yunque rainforest as well as visit old San Juan. “There’s also a place called the Poet’s Passage in old San Juan where this particular poet Lady Lian Andrews, who grew up there, it’s where they all sort of gravitated to, there are readings, open mic on Tuesday nights. It feels like a home base to me in old San Juan.”
Five Midnights is a study of identity, community and connection. Dávila Cardinal herself is bi-ethnic and a self-proclaimed “Gringa-Rican”, who has struggled in similar ways as her characters. She herself was sent to Puerto Rico to spend the summers with her mother’s family. Dávila Cardinal said, “I wanted to reach kids who had alcoholic parents, who are half of one heritage and half another heritage. And just reach kids that needed that kind of story. I wanted to find a way to tell my story in a way that could reach kids that are struggling with the same things.”
As the narrative moves through the multiple characters that inhabit this story these themes become clearer, from Lupe’s struggle with her dual heritage, and the need to be accepted on the island as a Puerto Rican, to Marysol’s struggles with her brother Vico’s death, and how the island is changing: businesses closing, houses being boarded up, friends seeming to leave the old neighborhood without a glance backwards. At first Marysol views Lupe as an intruder, not able to separate Lupe’s pale complexion and her real love for the island and the ‘outsiders’ that are taking over Marysol’s beloved homeland—a misconception that could hurt both girls if they don’t learn to help each other. Also, at stake is Javier’s struggle with his dark past, a past that he must bring to light in order to get the answers he and Lupe seek about the killer, and to reinforce his relationships with loved ones.
The urgency in the narrative is clear, the clock is ticking fast as Lupe and Javier have less than a week to find and stop the killer. But Dávila Cardinal has masterfully left breadcrumbs for both the characters and the reader. The tension lays in the question: Is the killer real or supernatural? An effect that will leave the reader clinging to the pages.
El Cuco, or the boogeyman, is a myth that has been passed down by word to mouth through the generations. Dávila Cardinal builds the suspense around this creature mostly by giving it a non-corporeal form, playing with the idea of shadows, and how they follow us wherever we go. In the end I felt the need for El Cuco to fully emerge as Lupe and Javier try to defeat him; the last few scenes did feel a bit short and choppy. But overall the story will carry you through: monsters do come when they are called.
Readers can discover who the next monster is in the sequel to Five Midnights, due out in early 2020.