Book Review

Review: One Year of Ugly by Caroline Mackenzie

I’ve seen a few up and down reviews of this book – it’s hard to write a dark comedy about illegal immigrants! – but I really needn’t have worried. I was unexpectedly gripped by One Year of Ugly – the setting of Trinidad, the yearning for Venezuela, the foul-mouthed MC and her steamy romance with a criminal.

Year of Ugly

Title: One Year of Ugly
Caroline Mackenzie
Pages: 400
Publisher: The Borough Press (Harper Collins)
Publication Date: 14th May 2020 (first published 5th March 2020)

The Palacios escaped from the crumbling socialism of Venezuela a few years ago and have been trying to keep a low profile in their new home of Trinidad. They all work hard and live their lives, but also live in fear that they will be deported back home.

But when Aunt Celia unexpectedly dies, her debt to an underworld gangster named Ugly is revealed. The family are essentially sold into an indefinite servitude of harbouring more illegal immigrants for Ugly until the unspecific time when their debt will be repaid. What Yola expected even less was her intense physical attraction to Ugly’s right hand man, Román, which leads to a steamy ongoing romance behind their scenes of their new, criminal, lives.

You may well think that romance has no place in a story about people becoming trapped by their status as ‘illegals’ and harbouring others who are trying to flee a country. It really shouldn’t – there’s just so much else going on that needs unpacking. But in this case, it works.

Part of that is down to the brilliant voice of Yola. She tells it exactly the way things are. She’s straight-talking, intelligent, no-nonsense and sarcastic. Not in a ‘I’ve made this strong woman in the face of all these difficulties’ – it’s just who she is and she’s telling it how it is. That’s part of what makes this so good and so funny.

Another part is her family – they are loud and raucous, happily fitting their own Latin stereotypes. But they are family, which means that they stick together. They’re close, although that’s both a good and a bad thing in this situation, and their relationship together takes on a greater importance throughout the story – the whole criminal gangster threatening our lives and our residency storyline almost feels like the funny one because everything else is so strong and normal.

And then there’s the romance – it all gets pretty hot and heavy between Yola and Román, definitely no holds barred. And it’s good. Especially because it’s not a blow by blow account of everything – little details are added in later on. We’re not sharing everything with them, just the impression of everything. It’s good writing.

And then there’s the whole (big) issue with illegal immigration. Sometimes that is what feels like the most ridiculous thing in this novel, that people have to live without personhood status, and around the government, or have to escape their own country. In the relative normality of everything else going on in this novel, it’s this that feels like the dark comedy.

But there are also moments where it’s beautifully and achingly described:

“Our immigrant story is as classic and unchanging as any Hans Christian Anderson fairytale – the tale of the illegal refugees who risked it all to live like cockroaches, hiding in the dank cranks of an unknown society where they hope no one will find them, antennae forever twitching, listening for the heavy boot of National Security, only to discover the strange new place that they call home has all the ugliness of the world they left behind, except worse, because here you’re stripped of rights, dignity, personhood.”

Although the Palacios want to help their fellow countrymen, they are very aware that they are doing so without any legal standing of their own – in some ways they are in greater danger, their status further reduced, than the refugees they are hosting.

More importantly, none of this can truly end happily – and that’s not forced on you. It ends the way it needs to, and the way it should.

5 stars

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.


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