One of the problems with reviewing this short but interesting novel is that the plot is based on a couple of surprises. To say too much about it would spoil the story. Once the action gets well underway the reader is presented with a surprising development involving one of the main characters. At that point the reader can even be forgiven for believing the story is essentially over. Read on however, and you’ll find that Sra. Balderrama has another trick up her sleeve for the last chapter, a ploy that makes the experience of reading Bilimbique even more satisfying.
So as not to give the game away, I’m going to be deliberately vague and say that the story involves a rather proper English family living in Mexico. There’s Marianna, one of the two leading characters in the story, and her mother, Catherine. Catherine comes across as a very formal and somewhat distant English lady, stolidly clinging to her British customs in the household and seeming to make no changes to any aspects of her way of life despite her years in Mexico.
For instance, she would occasionally remind her daughter: “Tea should always be a ceremony. First you warm the pot with hot water, swish it out, put in your tea leaves and water at a rolling boil, no less. Steep for at least four minutes, and serve, preferably in a nice china cup. And always sit down to sip and enjoy. Don’t ever stand around, gulping it down.”
Marianna, however, has a somewhat unsatisfactory relationship with her mother. She has always had the inexplicable feeling that somehow she has let down her proper, perfectly-behaved mother, most especially when she, years ago, ditched her dull husband and ran off with Jacques, a dashing French film maker.
Following Catherine’s death, Marianna one day takes on the task of sorting her mother’s personal belongings. She’s surprised to find a large brown envelope labeled BILIMBIQUE. Marianna sees a note attached to it. “Marianna, I thought perhaps Jacques could use this some day as a basis of a script for a movie.”
I won’t disclose the content of the envelope except to say that it takes the form of a short story which, in itself, takes up the major portion of this book. Enough to say that it’s set in the time of the Mexican Revolution, 1914, and it involves a young woman and a handsome young Mexican who is a member of Emiliano Zapata’s revolutionary army.
Marianna reads the story and it doesn’t take her long to figure out that her very proper mother was writing about herself and that the story is by all accounts a true one. And she’s not unaware that, after all these years, she has discovered parallels between their two lives.
The reader can be forgiven for thinking that that’s essentially the story. However Sra. Balderrama still has more to offer. And in the end it all adds up to a short but quite satisfying read.
Author Peggy Brown Balderrama knows Mexico well and writes knowledgeably about the country. She came to Mexico with her parents when she was seven years old and spent the rest of her life here. I’m sure the character of Marianna is based on herself. . .
As her brief biography explains: “She grew up in Mexico City in the forties when it was safe and unspoiled, and fondly remembers her freedom as a child to ride bike with her friends in the neighborhood and parks, and her days in the American High School. After her marriage to a young physician, they lived for a year in the south of Mexico, and later moved to northern Mexico where they have resided ever since.”
A bilimbique, it should also be explained, is a one peso bill printed of the Provisional Revolutionary Government back in 1914. When the power of the military faded the bilimbique faded, too, and it became little better than Monopoly play money. To this reader, its presence in the story is possibly a metaphor for the rather bogus aspect of the relationship that existed between the mother and daughter all their lives.
I read elsewhere, too, that the name bilimibique is based on Pancho Villa’s mispronunciation of William Vique, an American overseer who paid workers in vouchers bearing his signature.
In my humble O: A nice refreshing literary brew. As English as a cup of Catherine’s tea.
Bilimbique: A Story from Mexico
by Peggy Brown Balderrama
Athena Press, London. 157 pp. 2003
Available from Amazon Books: Paperback