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Eating Fire and Drinking Water

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"I was someone hungry for stories; more specifically, I was someone who craved after facts. I was, you see, a person with no history. Lacking this, I developed a curiosity about other's people's stories. . . ."

Clara Perez is a reporter on a small South seas island. An orphan raised by nuns, she is a young woman with origins shrouded in mystery. Full of idealistic ambition, she grows tired of the trivial assignments she's given at the daily paper, yearning to write articles of substance. So when the tiny street of Calle de Leon bursts into flames after a student demonstration--and a soldier kills an unarmed man--Clara seizes the chance to cover the explosive story.

Yet after Clara rushes to the burning street to investigate the tragedy, she discovers another, more personal one involving some remarkable truths about her unknown past--ghosts, she realizes, which have been silently pursuing her all her life. And as family secrets begin to unfold, Clara's missing history slowly spreads itself out on the tumultuous backdrop of a country wracked by revolution. . . .

An evocative and multilayered tale, at once political and personal, Eating Fire and Drinking Water is an extraordinary work, a powerful and pulsing novel of politics and commitment, loyalty and love, and the poignant search for truth.

350 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1996

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About the author

Arlene J. Chai

5 books52 followers
Arlene J. Chai (b. 1955) is a Filipino-Chinese-Australian who migrated to Australia with her parents and sisters in 1982 because of the political upheaval. She became an advertising copywriter at George Patterson's advertising agency in 1972 and has been working there since. It is there that she met her mentor Bryce Courtney, who continuously inspires her to improve her work.

She won the Louis Braille Adult Audio Book of the year for her novel "On the Goddess Rock" in 1999.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 55 reviews
Profile Image for Jr Bacdayan.
211 reviews1,742 followers
October 9, 2013
To say that this book affected me is an understatement. It not only affected, not merely touched me. It spoke to me, pierced me, beckoned me and stirred my very being. Arlene J. Chai's lyrical novel of self discovery and revolution is one that would affect any human being. More so as a Filipino, more so as a student of the State University, more so as a student activist, more so as a student activist searching for himself. It was as if this book was written for me, as if I was meant to pick it up one evening at my local bookstore. From the words of the narrator, Clara, herself "So if there is a message to be found in this tale, it is this: there is a sense... a plan behind everything that happens." To tell you the truth, I have never been a fan of this belief in destiny, that everything happens for a reason. That belief that your life has been laid out before you and that all you needed to do is to live it. I have always viewed that people use destiny as a scapegoat to absolve them the guilt of their faults and incompetence. So that they can rest their heads thinking that there was nothing they could do about it, it was meant to be. Destiny. When in reality it was their choice, their own incompetence and mistakes that led to their downfall. Well, I believe that we make our own paths, blaze our own trails, based on the choices we make. Destiny doesn't dictate our lives, we dictate our destiny. Sorry, I digress. I do feel strongly about these things. Haha. Somehow though, this book with all its magical realism made me want to believe. I guess this can be attributed to the talents of Ms. Chai. She is a spellbinding story teller. She writes with a personal tone that draws you in, as if you are listening to a close friend or a family member share a secret. Her words are highlighted by a sense of soothing sensitivity and a sensation of charming enticement. This being my first Filipino contemporary novel, I am not disappointed.

There are two main themes in this book. The first being self discovery, while the second is nationalism. Let me ramble on about self discovery first. This has always been an important matter to me. Not in the sense of "Who am I?", more in the sense of "What do I want with my life?" I believe that this is there at the top of Maslowe's hierarchy of needs. (Is it? No?) I will get back on to this later. I am there at the crucial stages of my life that would determine the road I will tread for the rest of it. I don't wish for a grand destiny. I just want to make the right decisions. Damn. Why is this review getting all personal? Told you this book is affecting. Anyway, the narrator and protagonist, Clara, is a young reporter without a history. She was an orphan raised by nuns who never knew her parents. A certain event though, would give her answers to her questions. Though it is very cliche, I have taken from this book that self-discovery is parallel to relationships. When one learns of one's self, one learns of others. You see, when you do not know who you are, you are only focused on finding things out for yourself. When you finally discover yourself, only then do you have enough attention to give to others.

“The vision one holds of one's life is so limited, reduced in scope to a moment, so that each person can make choices only within that narrowed reality.”

I have broached earlier on the subject of our decisions dictating our lives. The excerpt above really spoke to me. This made me realize that our destiny is not entirely upon our hands. There are forces beyond our control that affect our lives. "Now things are moving in a direction I can no longer foresee or plan for. I started out in control. Then the thing took a life of its own. Now I am simply reacting. Choosing the best of the options available to me." I stated earlier that Destiny doesn't dictate our lives, we dictate our destiny. I was naive. Yes the first part is still true, but the second. Well, I would say that we react to what life hurls at us. It is like a game. We control ourselves, but there are things around us we do not control that have adverse effects on our lives.

I have been rambling on for an eternity. Forgive me, but I should still like to dwell on nationalism. The setting of the story is eerily similar to that of 1970-80s Philippines when a dictator named Ferdinand Marcos ruled our country. Luis Bayani, an important character in the story is a student leader activist that would leave a strong nationalistic influence to Clara. He is from a well to do family but his eyes are opened when he experiences going to the Smoky Mountain. A dump site of trash and rubbish that has grown in size that it resembled a mountain. There is an entire community living there scavenging for things to recycle and sell. I would like to tell you that this place is fictional, that it does not exist. But sadly, there is such a place in the Philippines. A place where poverty is to the utter extreme that the saying "One man's trash is another man's treasure." becomes rather too literal. And sometimes when I think about these things, I hate myself for giving importance to trivial things like self-discovery, when there are these people who haven't even gotten past the first stage of Maslowe's pyramid. It is then that the activist in me awakens. It is intriguing that Arlene Chai was able to incorporate two things that often negate each other, love for self and love for country, and seamlessly weaved them together into a multi-layered tale of passion for both. The dictator, maliciously referred to as El Presidente in the novel, is a man drunk with power and extravagant in his dealings. He wastes resources while people suffer and violates even their most basic human rights. This leads to qualms and protests from every sector of the country, most specially the students. This part of the novel is taken from the history books of my country, as we really did overthrow a dictator via a peaceful revolution or demonstration. It will be forever etched in the memories of every Filipino citizen as the day democracy triumphed. Our beloved "People Power" where tens of thousands from every class and creed marched against the tyranny of the unjust ruler. This is not featured in the novel, but the setting and its prelude is carefully established.

The title "Eating Fire and Drinking Water" is actually a reference to the Filipino people as a race that bears too much.

"We are a strange people, Clara. We swallow so much of the injustice, hardship, and cruelty our fellow humans mete out to us. Why, we even have an expression for it:'We can take it.' And we do. We would rather let things go and take all the wrong done to us than do something to correct the situation. Then we find ways to diffuse the crisis. It's like putting out a fire. Only this fire is inside us. In the belly of this country. We can fight fire with water provided that we can get there soon enough. But we often act when it's too late... We learn so slowly. After so many centuries, we're still a people who eat fire and drink water."
"Why bother, then?"
"Because we have to believe that one day we'll learn."

There is this important allegory in the book, the river. I believe that this symbolizes my country. It is a murky, dirty, polluted river filled with human and inhuman wastes, giving of a strong stench. It is even a place where dead people are dumped and hidden.

"Last night my mother dreamed of the river."

"...I discovered that the river had changed. Its waters were so clear, so clear I could see to the very bottom."

"The river kept humming this song. It was calling me. So I climbed over the wall, and the water rose some, lapping at my feet, receding then coming back like a hand beckoning to me. I knelt before the river. I cupped my hands and scooped up some water. I drank it. It was sweet, Clara, the water was so sweet, and it smelled clean and pure, and I thought the world, the whole world was new again. I woke up then, feeling refreshed. I felt reborn."

"I believe in dreams"

My country doesn't have a dictator anymore, but corruption is still very much rampant, injustice is still lurking, and a majority of our citizens are still in a state of extreme poverty. The river is still murky and dirty, but there is progress. Little by little, it is being cleansed. We have a long way to go as a nation, but one day, I hope, Consuela's (Clara's mother) dream will be realized.

I too believe in dreams.
Profile Image for Lauren .
1,735 reviews2,338 followers
April 24, 2021
“We can fight fire with water provided we can get it there soon enough. But often we act when it’s too late. The result is splattered in the pages of our history: bloodbaths, uprisings, revolutions, you name it. And on it goes. We learn so slowly. After so many centuries, we’re still a people who eat fire and drink water.”

~From EATING FIRE AND DRINKING WATER by Arlene J. Chai, 1996.

#ReadtheWorld21 📍 Philippines

This story is about chaos. It's that moment right before lightening strikes. It's about a spark that lights the dynamite stick. It's the first domino that is felled in page 1 and continues in an elaborate and unexpected array for the next 300+ pages.

An incredibly immersive storytelling style with a very large cast of characters - university student protestors, military, newspaper reporters, shopkeepers, nuns in the convent, trash pickers, field labourers, senators, and even 'El Presidente' and 'Madam', clearly satirizing Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos.

Our guide through the labyrinth is Clara Perez, the reporter, but the voices shift multiple times through time and bodies.

The book opens with a cast of characters to assist the journey. We get background and little stories about nearly every person, truly defining and "fleshing out" each member in this story tapestry.

There's corruption, there's conflagration, there's stigmata, there's a magical stone that gives power. With so much happening, Chai weaves in and out, this story where nearly every action and every word have a consequence - butterfly beats it's wings - it works. Even when it doesn't seem linear or even logical, it works.

"You must remind yourself that it is hard to tell where truth ends and a lie begins. So listen all you like, but disbelieve all you hear. You are in the city of lies."
Profile Image for Arlie.
1,163 reviews
April 26, 2010
I really enjoyed Chai's first book 'The Last Time I Saw Mother', so I was pleased to find a copy of her second book. Although there are some similarities between the two - first person female narrator, complex family dynamics and a past full of secrets - the story is also political. Set on an island in the South Pacific, Chai is very deliberate in never giving the actual name of the country or the dictator (whom she calls El Presidente). It's a very interesting choice, but for those who are familiar with the Philippines, it seems obvious the story must be set there: she mentions national hero Rizal, sprinkles the text with Tagalog phrases, many characters have Spanish origin names, and the south is in a somewhat constant state of rebellion. The reader assumes the story must be about Marcos. However, as you get further into the story, main characters arise who greatly change the action and have no place in real history - the General Aure, the student activist Bayani. Furthermore, the timeline doesn't match real life. In not actually naming the Philippines, I think Chai was able to use the country as more than an inspiration, but it also allowed her great creative liberties. I was touched by the narrator's love for her country, her hopes and ideals, despite the reality that is often crushing. Change is a good dream.
Profile Image for Anne.
330 reviews101 followers
July 20, 2015
After reading this, I stood and let myself wallow in the silence as goosebumps dotted my arms. I didn’t want to talk to anyone then—I just wanted to ponder on what I have read, impressed at the way things worked sometimes. I had bought this book because it was on sale, but was really hesitant on purchasing it at first because I didn’t have much money with me then. But I bought it anyway, because I’m really impulsive that way. And look at where it brought me. It changed me in so many ways that I cannot imagine. I wasn’t expecting it to be such a big part of my life at the first few chapters, but about halfway into the book I knew I would never be the same person again.

Eating Fire and Drinking Water is a work of genius and demands to be read by every Filipino. This book tugged into my heart constantly, and reading it is like observing a particular portrait for a long, long time. The picture will move every now and then, like an old film movie progressing slowly. Suddenly you’re reading about people who seem so familiar, as if you’ve met them before, as if they’re old friends. Suddenly you’re seeing the history of your nation unfurl before you in a different perspective. Suddenly you’re learning more about yourself as a person and as a Filipino.

This novel made me realize so many things, most of them personal. Some of these more intrinsic realizations is that this is one of those books that make me conclude that I just want to read forever and study literature instead of actually write something, because there’s this voice telling me that I can never write something such as this anyway—write a story with substance, write a story that will scream of the Filipino spirit. But then, there’s another voice inside me that’s just as insistent—claiming that this entire thing is a challenge, and that one day, I too will write something that will reverberate in the hearts of my countrymen. It’s a daunting prospect, but worth looking forward to. And to achieve this I know I should acquaint myself better with the history of my land, and to the events that currently surround it. I need to be more aware of things happening around me.

This book is so precious to me that I can’t even begin to write about the things I love about this. Maybe it’s the voice of Clara Perez. Reading her narrate her tale is like listening to an old friend share her story. Although, I would admit, I think that her “all-knowing” perspective seems dubious sometimes; and because of that, it appeared to me like I wasn’t able to get to know her character fully because I was too preoccupied with reading about the events transpiring in the lives of others.

Speaking of which, I’m amazed at the way every character would coalesce at one common point. Whenever I would question the existence of a character, wondering why possibly he was even introduced when his role didn’t seem to have much significant, he would do something to prove me wrong. This always happened. And also, allow me to tell you how very impressed I am with how Arlene J. Chai weaved her characters. God, they were so real. They were breathing. They gave me a sense of nostalgia, as if I were meeting people that I haven’t seen in a long time—people whom I had missed.

In several instances this book reminded me of Rizal’s Noli me Tangere, and I do not know if this is a good thing or not, but I like it nonetheless. Most of the events (i.e. martial law) here were drawn from real life. The same goes with the places (i.e. Loyola University as Ateneo University; Smokey Mountain as Payatas) and some of the characters. I should comment though that I didn’t feel the presence of El Presidente that much. Or maybe Chai really chose it to be like that. And, after all, the president was already starting to lose his power at the dawn of the story.

God, goosebumps. I had goosebumps many times. And I cried at least once. The characters had grown so close to me, and it was as though their pains were morphing into mine. I really loved the characters, although they reminded me of several other characters from other books sometimes. The only difference, though, is the Filipino blood flowing in their veins.

This was so beautifully-written, that need not be said. I love the writing style. I love the choice of words. It was descriptive without being too flowery, and it all suited my liking. The depiction of events were so accurate too: you could smell the intolerable scent in the Smokey Mountain, you could feel the mounting terror of Luis Bayani as he was being pursued, you could feel the agony, the unspeakable pain Laslo and Sophie must have been going through in the hands of Aure. God. You could feel everything. More than a couple of times my heart pounded against my chest because of the intensity of the events and the power of the writing.

Forgive me for stating my thoughts up to this point very incoherently, as I have always had a problem writing in an organized manner about books that I love, about books that have made an impact in my life. I love this so much I don’t know what to say anymore—the characters, the writing, the events, the hint of magical realism, the hanging ending. The third part of the prophecy wasn’t shown explicitly, and the events concerning El Presidente and the country didn’t really have a closed ending. Everything is left to the imagination. Or it’s like the author is saying that since this is the Filipino novel, echoing our history, then it must have no end. The events will continue towards the real life. And, as Luis Bayani said, history doesn't go in a linear fashion, but is more of a cycle.

The tale has indeed no end.
Profile Image for Joey.
199 reviews47 followers
September 9, 2014
Arlene Chai is a Filipino-Chinese author who migrated to Australia during the political chaos in 1982. Due to her martial law experience, she is known for her skills in weaving the political problem in the Philippines to her fictions. Her first novel THE LAST TIME I SAW MOTHER became a best-seller in Australia and was eventually published in the USA, the UK, and the Philippines.

The style of the story is very typical of a Filipino novel. It deals with the regime of the late President Ferdinand Marcos as well as the modern socio-political culture and values at that time. The story primarily centers around the self-discovery of the main character, Clara Perez, an amateur newspaper reporter, about the origin of herself. Then, she will be involved in the political life of the activist, Luis Bayani.

Obviously, Arlene J. Chai wants to depict the political life of the late President Marcos, along with former First Lady, Imelda Marcos although Chai does not directly refer to them. But through the characters, plots, and settings she used, I could guess their representation:

1. El Presidente = The late President Ferdinand Marcos
2. Madam= Former First Lady Imelda Marcos. In the novel, she is depicted as “imeldific”.
3. Loyola University= it could be Ateneo de Manila University or University of the Philippines-Diliman
4. Lacson Bridge= The bridge across the Pasig River
5. Smokey Mountain= Payatas Dumpsite
6. Colonel Aure=he could represent the butchers of Marcos.
7. Luis Bayani= He could be Benigno Aquino Sr. However; he does not completely resemble him. It must be a twist.

What I liked about this novel is that it has many beautiful passages. It only proves that Chai has what it takes to be a good writer. However, the only problem is the plots of the story. There are some garden-variety parts which I found hackneyed. They appear to be “deadwoods “and “hedging words’ which lost my excitement. I guess I ‘m almost familiar with them such as telltales, legends, a part that an aristocratic mother hates a beautiful poor girl whom her son will fall for, or a part that a child was adopted by a covenant of nuns, and blah blah blah. Uhmmm. I understand that these kinds of situations are very common in the Philippine culture, but PATAWARIN AKO , I’m fed up with them. I wish she had focused on the topic about the Martial Law. If it were not its cute, feminine, and colorful paperback, I would not be driven to finish it. ^^

Profile Image for Rima.
25 reviews17 followers
May 10, 2012
This book made me realize that I don't know much about my country's history. haha.
Profile Image for Nicole Elaine.
38 reviews1 follower
March 16, 2021

While I was reading this, I felt it. I felt the people beside me, heads held high, and fists raised to the sky. I started this book with the expectation that this will be a novel of unveiling someone's identity, but I was gifted with something more. Something I will carry as long as I live. I have seen the world of the poor, the rich, and those who are in between. I have heard the song of the river. I have felt the land move. I have met Luis, Laslo, and Clara. I have seen them in me too. There are so many things that I have learned from this story but nothing will compare to the feeling I had while I journeyed with Clara. With her, I felt angry and I felt reborn. I have grown up with her, discovered her roots, wept with her, and stood by her side.

This is one of the books that I will treasure, and if fate allows, I will pass down to my future children/nieces/nephews. I will not let this be unread on my shelf. For it is what Bayani would have wanted. After all, BAYANI IS ALIVE.
Profile Image for Luna.
9 reviews
May 17, 2022
rereading this book really made me appreciate the writing and story more. the first time i read this, i rated 3⭐️ because i found that there were too many characters and felt that their stories were so confusing. however upon reading it again, i realized how necessary this was. by adding characters from different walks of life, the author was able to piece together a tale that is both personal and political. overall, a great and important read 👍
Profile Image for Gerene Leal.
17 reviews3 followers
June 3, 2012
While there are plenty of novels that told the story of people’s lives during wars and revolutions, Arlene J. Chai’s Eating Fire and Drinking Water, however, tells the story of how characters lived at a time when a revolution is yet to begin.
Profile Image for Jamie.
63 reviews1 follower
May 11, 2022
writing was so immersive and engaging despite how predictable it was. i couldn't put it down or stop thinking about it at times.

story and plot-wise: anxiety-inducing because it hits very close to home. it's very timely and serves as a reminder of the injustice the country has faced at the hands of dictators. it's a painful and striking story of a woman stumbling on her past and uncovering how she fits into the world amidst such tumultuous times.

this should be required reading.

(3 stars because of how bad my anxiety was reading this and because this got me into a 3-week slump -- reading experience was bad but the story was good and the execution was immaculate)
Profile Image for Amanda.
280 reviews4 followers
November 3, 2020
This is a study of the beginning of a revolution against entrenched power, how misuse of that power eventually creates a groundswell of change.
Overlaid is the story of the narrator's own journey of discovery into her origins, also shrouded by the misuse of power, this time on a personal level.
A fascinating read.
Profile Image for Nina.
102 reviews13 followers
December 5, 2010

Set against the backdrop of an emerging rebellion, a struggling young reporter rushes to a fire in a small street in the city to write about what happened. Little did she know that the circumstances of her birth are intertwined with the story she would be writing.

So goes the story of Clara Perez. Written in the first person, this book tells stories within a story. I would like to remark again on the author's brilliant recollection of historical events that was the background of this novel, and should I say, Arlene J. Chai definitely knows her strongest suit: historical backgrounds. However, unlike The Last Time I Saw Mother, this story is not hesitant, uncertain, or digressing. Maybe that's because there is only one storyteller here, and so the reader is not bombarded with several voices speaking about different things, yet all very identical. This book's tone is at once haunting and fascinating, logical and imaginative. This may be the author's best book yet.

The characters assert their own unique qualities which make for interesting reading. It was like reading about your favorite celebrities in the gossip column: you could not, for the life of you, ignore what you are reading, nor unbelieve what you just learned. Only this time, the gossip column is a work of fiction, but feels almost real. Because it occurred in the time of what may be the Philippine People Power Revolution (the author did not specify which country this occurred, but every detail definitely points to the Philippines), I could not help but reconcile the stories within this book to those I learned about in history class, and with conversations with the people who lived through Martial Law and witnessed the revolution. Was there really a stone? Did a church actually disappear? Was there really an attempt on a general's life? You can't help but unearth the story surrounding these events again. I think that is what I love about this author's works: she talks so well about history you want to open the books again and read it to confirm or refute whatever she said. It seems like the author is challenging you on what you know about history.

However, there is one part that I did not like: the stigmata. I know that this was symbolic of that character's life, but it just seemed too much drama already, and this book is already full of it. It's full to the brim you feel like you are watching a movie: you huddle in your seat when a gruesome murder occurs, you snort through the mushy love lines but feel touched in spite of yourself, and you feel roaring angry at the cold, calculating, haughty mother. This book, with its several stories, have all that and more.

In summary, I think the author has evaluated her writing and improved on her storytelling. Gone is the digression and uncertainty, and in its place, something thrilling and just a touch dramatic. She has become one of my favorite authors because of this book, and I can't wait to see what she writes about next.
Profile Image for Fathi Rayyan.
24 reviews
December 25, 2020
Eating Fire and Drinking Water is a story about Clara Perez, a junior reporter with origins shrouded in mystery, set in a dying day of a despotic regime. But this story is also about a man’s act of kindness that changes the lives of many, a woman who bleeds from the wounds of Christ, a man whose name is Pride; and a corrupt leader and his wife’s imeldific lifestyle, a colonel and a young man.

While there are plenty of stories about people’s lives during wars and revolutions, this book tells the story of how characters lived at a time when a revolution is yet to begin, from the eyes of a novice journalist. It is so timely that I read this in the midst of worldwide protests happening following the killing of George Floyd, the shrinking space of democracy in Southeast Asia and many parts of the world, and criminalization of activists and journalists.

There were many characters, which at first, confused me a little. However, eventually every character would coalesce at one common point, creating this web of interaction and influence in each others’ lives. Each character is unique and it felt real like you are meeting them in person. Arlene did a splendid job in putting the complexity of each character into words to be captured by the readers.

What I love the most about this book would be the voice of the narrator. Reading her narrate her tale is like listening to an old friend share her story. The book is so beautifully written, some sentences sound lyrical. I love the choice of words and how things are conveyed – descriptive enough but not too flowery. As I read the chapters, I could smell the intolerable scent in the Smokey Mountain, I could feel the mounting terror of Luis Bayani as he was being pursued, the agony, the unspeakable pain Laslo and Sophie must have been going through in the hands of Aure, and the confusion and conflicted feeling of Clara as she uncover the mystery of her origins. The settings were described in detail – which made me feel nostalgic about certain places in Manila I visited earlier this year: the Palace and the river next to it, the University Statue, the slums area of the city, and many more.
34 reviews
July 29, 2020
Woah this book was woah. After reading The Last Time I Saw Mother, I wanted to read more of Arlene J. Chai. Her writing was so detailed, so beautiful, and so creative. The way she tells the story of her characters is so intricate and pulls you in immediately. This book was different from TLTISM. This book was slow paced and should be read carefully. This is due to the vast characters at play, making their mark across Clara Perez’s story. The first few pages was a slow read, but then the story progresses and soon you’ll find yourself in awe of the plot twist. You have to read this yourself to know the complex story and how the timeline of President Marcos/ El President goes with it. There were twists that I didn’t see and there was a scene too gruesome in the book that was so painful to read. It was full of surprises and goes to show you the times of Marcos’ dictatorship.

While the story is fiction, this does not mean the stories of the military, of the President, and of the period were made up. There were accounts of police and military brutality, “salvages” done to political rivals and activists, and brutal rape of women at that time. The story did not include the EDSA Revolution but it did bring messages of activism, especially with the character of Luis Bayani. He encouraged others that the President’s hold on power was unconstitutional and the people should protest and march. As part of the youth, we are encouraged to use our voices and speak up when our freedom and the freedom of our country is at a stake. The Duterte administration now is showing signs of the previous Marcos regime. What happens now would be up to us and whether we decide to act upon it.

Truly this book was an eye-opener and a great read. Would recommend to everyone, most especially the Filipino youth. Books like these show the past, present, and the coming future.

Profile Image for Fral Buison.
2 reviews1 follower
October 2, 2010

Upon realizing that this is based on the accounts and the personal experience of the author during the Marcos regime, I could not believe how complex this book was. I have always wanted to know what it like was to be living in those times, and this book brought me using my imagination to that time and place. This book will definitely draw the reader more and more to the story line especially the Filipino audience because of the backdrop that was well researched in Philippine history.

The story is not a straight, boring singular-antagonist plot against the world - it’s more than that. It’s never just about Clara Perez, its stylized in a way that there are series of events intertwined to complement each other to create this one big puzzle piece about the lives of the people involved. The complexity of the plot is something you cannot easily label or typecast as it’s not just about the life in the time of Marcos regime. Reality wise, it is most heartbreaking that one can actually relate to the characters desires, aspirations and frustrations – exploiting human behaviors and relationships at its best. There is search for truth and the wise insights brought upon that are just screaming for you to quote them, the morals heroic but not preachy and the characters honorable but not flawless.

Most definitely I feel enlightened after reading this book because it did not only open my eyes to the harsh realities of the border between the poor and the rich; politics and governance; the unloved and the unrequited; and the unparalleled social injustice and the biased justice system
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Ervin Patrick.
39 reviews
February 22, 2013
Amazing! I read Chai's first book, The Last Time I Saw Mother, before but I enjoyed this one far far far far better than that! In this second novel, everything seemed to scatter everywhere at first, but the author, Arlene J. Chai, adroitly gathered each piece and formed a marvelous whole! - a marvelous story of relationships, history, politics, revolution, etc. Yes! Chai captured these pieces and put them inside a small book! - There's no such thing as a small story! Though there was a part that I did not like that much(), I decided to still give this 5 stars because of the inexplicable feeling it left me after reading. In fact, I called a friend last night telling her the wonder of this book! That's how overwhelmed I was!
Profile Image for Beverly Valencia.
22 reviews20 followers
November 23, 2013
I bought this expecting a latin american set-up but I was surprised to read a rich historical fiction set against the Marcos era (It's a guessing game, but so very obvious). You know it's a good book when something inside you is shaken by the concepts presented. And I was shaken by Luis Bayani, the plight of the social class (reminds me of Sinclair) and Clara's search for identity. Now I need to read a 'happier' book.
Profile Image for Ian.
5 reviews1 follower
September 8, 2012
I got a glimpse of my country's history, which, apparently, I wasn't aware of. Haha.
Profile Image for Joan Paula.
1 review8 followers
December 3, 2014
this is for my project...
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Sheerah.
33 reviews1 follower
April 25, 2023
** Spoilers **

Loved this book overall; wonderful storytelling and weaving of multiple character arcs together to form a cohesive whole. The narrative was both personal/relational and political/macro in scope which was an awesome achievement. There was an element of fantasy, but it was very subtle and elegantly done.

Critique: I could not stomach what happened to the character of Sophia and the lack of justice for her. Same with Ana, in fact. Felt very let-down when Aure emerged scot-free in the end after committing absolutely unspeakable crimes against a young woman. And then the Senator's wife, who threw literal acid on another woman's face, goes on to become an upstanding and revered leader.

I felt that these victims of violence were discarded and dismissed from the narrative in a way that was too brutal and that diminished both the significance of their lives and the atrociousness of the crimes against them. The river sings the dirge for male student martyr Luis Bayani, but who is singing for Sophia?

In the end, I wasn't especially rooting for the fall of El Presidente's regime; the administration didn't seem that terrible, to be honest. I wanted to see the end of by far the worst monster in the story, and that person lived on with zero consequences. It was difficult feeling happy for the protagonist Clara's grace-filled conclusion, because I was still thinking about Sophia and keeping my eyes peeled for even the smallest shred of poetic justice that didn't come.
1,188 reviews14 followers
May 15, 2017
An interesting mixture of contemporary life in a fictional island dictatorship, with an old fashioned style of writing. Told by a young woman, a reporter for the local paper, who gets caught up in a student demonstration that brings out the army and leads to the death of a man who has been her secret benefactor. This leads to revelations about her birth and abandonment, not the big assignment she had been hoping for. Brutal torture and violent clashes between demonstrators and officials of the regime create a violent and bloody atmosphere.
Profile Image for Ren Bande.
6 reviews
January 29, 2018
This one is an underrated gem. I think every Filipino should read this atleast once in their lifetime. This was so beautifully-written that I had to pause before reading the last chapter just to take everything in.

This book contains many “feels” inducing passages and learnings. I will never get over how Arlene Chai was able to introduce every character deeply; so deep, that the characters will remain engraved on every readers’ hearts.
May 30, 2023
ahhh what can i say what can i sayyy, this book was absolutely wonderful! it might sound a bit strange because a huge chunk of it was insanely depressing, but it was succch an easy read! Although i am frustrated with myself for taking wayyy too long to finish it, i also appreciate the fact that it kept me entertained & occupied for like two months- lol. so so happy that my uni’s library allowed me to discover this book which i wouldn’t have otherwise known about, Arlene is a brilliant author!
Profile Image for waks.
58 reviews3 followers
December 22, 2017
Good shit. A really insightful and gritty look into a point of darkness in the country and something that sets that patriotic flame ablaze. But such is not a destructive fire, but rather, a rejuvenating one.

"After so many centuries, we are still people who eat fire and drink water."

"Why bother then?"

"Because we have to believe that one day we'll learn."
Profile Image for xueh wei.
124 reviews
August 15, 2020
I really enjoyed the way this book was written - somehow the dramatic telenovella writing style worked really well for the unfolding of this story. It also had all the elements I liked: a story of family, student uprising, & overthrowing of the government!

Read this with LiteraSEA Book Club. (May or may not write a longer review later)
Profile Image for prime.
7 reviews
September 15, 2023
As I immersed myself in the story, chapter by chapter, there were only two words that crossed my mind—excruciatingly enigmatic.

I don't know how Arlene J.C. did it, but her words in writing this revolutionary tale are so imaginatively striking—the smell, the pain, the sight, the sound, and the tactility from each passage can all be felt and greatly experienced at every turn of its pages.

It may be an exaggeration, but I really love this book and the mind behind it—it's poetic, dramatic, and tragically written to give us the hideous truth that lies in our reality today.
Profile Image for Eshe  Mūrutani .
109 reviews11 followers
June 6, 2020
I loved the memoir style the author chose to write this novel in. The story stayed with me for months even after reading it, simply because I have been thinking about revolutions and change lately.
Profile Image for nate.
157 reviews2 followers
September 7, 2021
As much as I want to really love the book, the writing style is just a little disappointing. Also, the story is so predictable. Still a good read, though.

3/5 stars
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