Even though The Beggar’s Opera is not yet out (it will be on bookshelves in February), Penguin did a ten book giveaway on Goodreads a month or so ago. So far, five people who won advance copies have reviewed and/or rated it, which I think is an incredible response. The reviews so far have been uniformly terrific. Except for one, by someone who wasn’t actually one of the winners and actually posted the rating before the galleys were sent out. And like any author, it’s that one that’s bugging me.
What’s troubling me, since the book is set in Cuba, is that the reader has a Cuban name.
She gave the book one star out of five (there is no zero, or I’m sure I would have received it). Unfortunately, she didn’t give any reasons as to why she hated the mere idea of this book so much, nor has she ever reviewed or even rated any other books.
Now, I can well imagine how someone from Cuba might not like my story. For one thing, it deals with the sex trade and child prostitution in Havana. These are difficult subjects. I’m sure Cubans don’t like to think about them, anymore than Canadians like to be reminded of the over five hundred Aboriginal prostitutes across Canada who are missing and presumed dead.
But shortly after The Beggar’s Opera was accepted for publication , I found a news item about three Italian tourists who are being held in a Cuban jail for the drug-related death of a 12 year old child prostitute. So even though I had made up the plot, the fact of child prostitution in Cuba is not fiction.
I can also imagine someone familiar with Havana thinking I didn’t know my way around. The famous Callejón de Hamel is similar to my Blind Alley but not the same. The Parque Cuidad hotel does not exist, although it bears a resemblance to the stunning NH Parque Central; the park I’ve set it beside is also fictitious. El Bar was not Hemingway’s favourite bar, although I’ve described it as being so in the book. In fact, Hemingway preferred the hotel bar at the Hotel Floridita for his daiquiris and La Bodeguita del Medio for his mojitos. There is, I’m afraid, no El Bar — it is imaginary.
And the command structure of the police force I’ve created bears no relationship to reality either.
Why make these changes?
Well, I had a a very real concern that a story about a child who is sexually assaulted and murdered in a real Havana hotel might negatively impact that hotel as well as the people who work there. The same applies to the Callejón de Hamel. And since I have prostitutes hanging around bars, I didn’t want to single out a real bar for the same reason, so I made one up.
As for the police structure, I could only find one article about how the legal system works in Cuba and that was in an academic journal.
I was never arrested while in Havana; I have no firsthand experience with the police there except what I’ve observed. Cuban author José Latour writes in his books about how the Cuban police do investigations but I didn’t want to start borrowing from his work, so I had to invent.
Of course, it’s possible that the reader simply hated the plot. Fair enough. The story isn’t for everyone; no book is. The good news is that another Goodreads reviewer who is very familar with Cuba has given it 4 stars out of 5:
“I really liked this book! I used to be married to a Cuban, I was in Cuba many times and I felt like the book depicted the life in Cuba quite accurately. I finished The Beggar’s Opera in 2 days (I actually was reading another book at that time and I wanted to just take a peek to see what this book was about. ) I could not stop reading it and had to finish it before I went back to my other book 🙂 I needed to find out “who did it” but also wanted to follow the stories of the book’s many interesting characters till the very end. Extraordinario y gracias!!! ”
Check out Penguin Canada’s book trailer for The Beggar’s Opera here! It’s pretty cool!