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South American Gothic: Edward Swift’s The Daughter of the Doctor and the Saint

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Edward Swift’s latest novel, The Daughter of the Doctor and the Saint, is a tumultuous, epic work of magical realism, half The Count of Monte Cristo and half One Hundred Years of Solitude. Readers like myself who have cherished Swift’s previous books—my personal favorites include Splendora, A Place with Promise and My Grandfather’s Finger—will once again luxuriate in the honeycombed, Tennessee Williams-esque cadences of his prose. This is Swift’s first novel since moving to San Miguel de Allende in 2006 and, ironically, the author’s new expatriate status seems to have reignited his sense of East Texas strangeness, so lovingly rendered in earlier novels such as Principia Martindale. To a considerable degree, The Daughter of the Doctor and the Saint reads like a Southern Gothic novel transplanted south of the border.

As the novel opens, 82-year-old Josefina Esperon—the richest and most celebrated woman in her unnamed Latin American country—has invited the surviving members of the Serrano family, leaders of her homeland’s military dictatorship, to lunch. Her guests include the nation’s president and vice president, as well as its archbishop and the mother superior of its Carmelite order, each of whom harbors hopes of being declared Esperon’s heir. From their point of view, the afternoon is merely an audition, an excellent opportunity to worm their way into the dowager’s heart and her bottomless pocketbook. But for Señora Esperon, the gathering holds far greater—and darker—significance. She’s been awaiting this luncheon for most of her life.

The course of that life has been both grand and peculiar. As Swift’s title makes plain, Josefina is a woman of uncommon lineage. Her father, Alejandro Esperon, was his nation’s most accomplished physician, with an unquenchable sex drive that almost equaled his wife’s religious devotion. That his paramours lined the hallways of the family’s 43-room mansion was a fact little noticed by Josefina’s mother, Eufemia, a raving beauty who also happened to be raving mad. Belonging to that bothersome variety of saints who’re forever crawling through the mud and muck in search of transcendence—or, more tiresome still, breaking out in bloody sores or levitating off the bed in response to some fervid vision—Eufemia is worshipped by her followers as a modern-day St. Teresa of Avila.

Seen through Swift’s glinting eye, it’s the philandering doctor (for all his grievous faults) who’s the pleasanter parent, though Josefina receives a thorough education from both father and mother. From Alejandro, she discovers the lethal power of erotic attraction and home-brewed poisons. From Eufemia, she learns the uses of stubbornness. By combining her parents’ varied talents, Josefina will eventually fashion a smashing, albeit unconventional, career.

Soon, the mad charm of the Esperon household is snuffed out by a Serrano-led military coup. As prominent sympathizers with the nation’s leftist rebels, Josefina’s parents are done away with. Their deaths occur at almost precisely the moment, were Swift’s novel a theatrical work, when the curtain would fall on the first act. When the curtain rises again, Josefina has been transformed by her desire for vengeance from a privileged 16-year-old into a woman scorned. The book’s remaining two-thirds are devoted to the reaping of Josefina’s revenge—and in this pursuit she reveals a commendable broadmindedness. To fund her mission, she becomes the nation’s premier madam, transforming her many-bedroomed home into an astoundingly lucrative house of ill repute. Not content with killing the gunmen who killed her parents, Josefina determines to wipe out the entire Serrano clan. It’s a task she accomplishes with aplomb, though it takes the rest of her life—until, in fact, that momentous day when she invites the brood’s final holdouts to a cunningly prepared lunch.

The Daughter of the Doctor and the Saint is among the most accomplished and entertaining novels of one of Texas’ best writers—and yet, Swift experienced such difficulty finding a publisher for it that he eventually released it himself. Self-publishing has become an increasingly common recourse taken by topflight writers—such as John Edgar Wideman, Ward McBurney, and Elisa Lorello—whose works can’t be corralled by mainstream tastes. Swift assesses this disheartening state of affairs thusly: “I take chances with language and structure,” he says. “My style is poetic and at times incantatory. My characters are larger than life. The marketing people I am acquainted with just hate this sort of thing.”