The Newspaper Widow by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard

THE NEWSPAPER WIDOW by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard
University of Santo Tomas Publishing House 2017, Manila, Distributed by PALH, 238 pages)
ISBN 9789715068116 (sc) $18.95
Finalist for the 37th National Book Award in Literature (English, Novel)
Shortlisted for the Inaguaral Cirilo F. Bautista Prize for the Novel.

Book Review by Foreword Reviews:

While at first glance The Newspaper Widow seems like a standard historical mystery, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Cecilia Manguerra Brainard’s novel is full and complex, overflowing with textured, fully realized characters who drive the story on every page.

Ines Maceda, the “newspaper widow,” aims to clear her son’s name. He has been accused of murdering a priest. In addition, Ines grieves for her deceased husband and combats the lingering trauma of earlier miscarriages. Her development is one of the shining elements of the novel—she feels tangible, rooted in the story and the setting.

The Newspaper Widow offers a nuanced glance into Filipino society circa 1908. It is a world rich with history, myth, and ritual; descriptions pulse with life, providing crucial insights into aspects of Filipino culture and world colonial history, such as encounters with the “Island of the Living Dead,” sectioned off to contain those inflicted with leprosy, and once the world’s largest leper colony.

While on the surface the book is a crime story, the plot is actually layered and unique. One of the novel’s greatest strengths is how it raises interesting, complicated questions about morality and justice while Ines searches for the priest’s true killer: Is death ever an apt punishment for a crime? Is revenge moral, or even necessary?

Refreshingly, nothing is black and white.

For all of The Newspaper Widow’s greatness, sometimes there are too many layers to the plot, and the ending falls a bit flat in comparison to the rest of the narrative. But flaws are minor; overall, this is a solid, satisfying work of literature.

Cecilia Manguerra Brainard displays masterful storytelling skill in The Newspaper Widow, a unique, memorable mystery. ~ Review by MYA ALEXICE (January/February 2018


Book Review by Dr. Herminia Meñez Coben for PALH
Professor Emerita from California State University of Sonoma

The Newspaper Widow, a fast-paced, multi-layered novel of romance and mystery, presents an international cast of characters: a Spanish friar; an ill-fated lawyer; an expatriate Frenchwoman and her gay friends, a Tagalog and a Catalan; an American doctor and researcher at the leper colony; and finally, the enterprising publisher widow of the novel’s title, Ines Maceda.

Set in urban Ubec and rural Carcar in the Eastern Visayas, Philippines during the first decade of the twentieth century, the story unfolds through the alternating voices of those principal characters, who are somehow drawn together because of the mysterious disappearance and death of the Augustinian priest, Father Zafra. Departing from the conventional structure of the murder mystery, however, the author deftly weaves the intersecting narratives of each of her characters into a complex social drama of family feuds and forbidden loves, petty jealousies and class rivalries, but also of deep friendships and enduring bonds of kinship.

Against the backdrop of Philippine history during that country’s critical transition from Spanish to American colonial rule, The Newspaper Widow, moreover, highlights the changing world of Ubecans as they confront crucial political issues such as the mandated transfer of the friars lands and land reform, governmental control of people’s health, as in the isolation of lepers and the campaign against rat infestation. Without interrupting the flow of the narrative, the author references specific historical events like the Balangiga massacre by the American military, the role of the Thomasites in the new educational system, and the establishment of a modern transportation network, as specified by the railway linking Ubec and Carcar.

The main critical voice throughout this period is the local newspapers: The Ubec Daily, founded by Professor Pablo Maceda, an intellectual and political critic, and The Light, owned by Mrs. Maceda’s childhood friend, Santiago Echeveria. The latter resembles what might be called a tabloid, devoted to local gossip, whereas the former, with guest columns by her husband’s professional colleagues, aspires to reporting the “Truth.” The existence of two local papers, with very different viewpoints, in Ubec during the first decade of the twentieth century is indicative of an emerging progressive society.

Modernity comes to Ubec also by way of its expatriates from Europe and the United States. Foreigners like the French dress designer and the Catalan choreographer introduce Ubecans to new ideas about fashion and theater. Ubec’s social elites attempt to outdo each other especially during the town fiesta, with its typical display, palabas, of the women’s prized jewelry and European-style gowns, designed by the French woman, during the carnival and the coronation of the beauty queen, choreographed as an Egyptian spectacle by the Catalan.

Still, underneath the exposure to foreign influences and growing modernization lies a strong adherence to traditional culture, as evidenced by widespread beliefs in portentous dreams, ghostly apparitions, supernatural beings, and babaylanes (shamans and local healers).

Straddling both worlds, the characters in this book, despite personal tragedies, adapt remarkably well to their fast-changing society. In the end what starts out as a major disruption at the beginning of the novel, i.e. the discovery of the victim’s skeletal remains in a creek along the Augustinian monastery, and the various personal conflicts following the event, concludes with a restoration and reunion, a community made whole once again. The last chapter provides a closure to the romance of the French Melisande, although the mysterious death of Father Zafra remains a mystery.

A must-read from a master storyteller, The Newspaper Widow promises not only to entertain but also to educate the reader about a critical period in Philippine history.

Review by Dr. Herminia Meñez Coben, Los Angeles, California, 11/9/2018.

BIO: Dr. Herminia Meñez Coben is Professor Emerita from California State University of Sonoma. She is the author of "Verbal Arts in Philippine Indigenous Communities: Poetics, Societ, and History" and "Explorations in Philippine Folklore." She was the first Filipino graduate of University of Pennsylvania's Folklore and Folklife Department.

Book Review by Positively Filipino

The Newspaper Widow, by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, treats readers to meaningful insights into historical events and life in the Philippines in the early 1900s. A work of fiction, it is more than a masterfully crafted and multi-layered mystery.

The story begins with the discovery of the dead body of Father Zafra, a Spanish Augustinian priest. During his ten years in Ubec, townspeople have appreciated him for his community programs, but there are also those who have disapproved of his involvement with legal disputes over friar lands. Thus, begins the search for the killer. Ines’ only child, Andres, is a strong suspect and is soon imprisoned.

Throughout, The Newspaper Widow provides a glimpse into an unlikely yet blossoming friendship between Ines Maceda, a recent widow tasked with taking over her late husband’s newspaper, The Ubec Daily, and Melisande Moreau, the contrastingly frilly Parisian dress shop owner residing in provincial Ubec. “She (Melisande) appeared like a mushroom that sprouts after a thunderstorm.” (p. 18)

Brainard masterfully scaffolds the story with the existent colonialism imposed upon the Philippines, and the strong influence of Catholicism. Homage is also given to the pre-colonial presence of the Babaylan: “Kidlat is a babaylan, a priestess. People say she can cause deaths and create potions to steal a man or woman’s hearts. This is all nonsense. I see her for my headaches, and she uses herbs, oils, sometimes rocks to massage me, to make me feel better…During the time of the Spanish, the babaylanes were the healers and leaders. The Spaniards went after them, accusing them of being witches, and the women had to hide. There aren’t too many babaylanesleft, but they’re still around.” (p.150)

The Newspaper Widow is a strongly character-driven period piece. As such, it offers a variety of eyes from which to experience the complexities of Philippine society as it transitioned from Spanish to American colonization. 

One reason I personally enjoyed the book is that much of it takes place in Carcar, Cebu, the place of my maternal ancestral roots, a place but for a brief visit there and first meeting with relatives, I have become acquainted with only through novels like this one.~~ Review by: A third-generation Filipina-American, Lisa Suguitan Melnick is a professor in the Language Arts and Kinesiology divisions at the College of San Mateo, California. She is a correspondent for and the author of #30 Collantes Street (Carayan Press, 2015)

Book Review by Reading Ruffolos

Around this plot revolves the story and life of Ines Maceda with sub-themes on friendship, teenage romance and same-sex relationship in a book that is aptly titled, The Newspaper Widow.

Written by Filipino American author Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, The Newspaper Widow takes readers into the not-so-distant past when social media did not rule the world. There were no digital cameras, no tape recorders and certainly, no camera phones which make it easy to upload and share photos.

In this book, Brainard encapsulated the tune of that time while introducing characters who were rebels, who refused to conform to set norms and standards, who dared to defy them and come out stronger albeit scarred and bruised.

This is not a non-linear approach to a suspense novel; it is a story of woman and her struggle to find herself in the greater scheme of things. It just so happened – in Brainard’s creative mind transformed into a novel – that a murder was committed as our protagonist, Ines Maceda, was trying to make sense of her life.

There were parts which I found hurried though. For instance, Ines and her friend’s Melisande’s “discovery” of the identity of the murderer was quite shaky. I felt that one visit to a place was not enough to determine the culprit; the way the narrative unfolded was short on details.

The novel resonated with me because of the newspaper “angle”. Being a journalist, this one immediately piqued my interest. I was curious to read what happens in the story when my good friend Hendri Go sent me two chapters of the book in preparation for my interview with Brainard as part of her book talk during the Cebu Literary Festival last month.

Brainard said this book was inspired by his great grandmother Remedios Diosomito Cuenco, who was widowed at the age of 39 and took over her husband’s Imprenta Rosario press.

The Newspaper Widow was my companion during my trip last week to Singapore and Malaysia. If I have to give it a score with 10 being the highest, I would give it an eight Ines Maceda may be the primary character but her friend Melisande’s love story is a subject of deeper discussion.

My first Brainard book did not disappoint.

I encourage those who need a crash course on what was Cebu like in the 1900s to read this and then follow up with non-fiction accounts or books published by the University of San Carlos Press. Several of them are displayed and sold at the PhiloSophia Library Café on National Highway in Mandaue City, Cebu. Those who want to purchase a copy of The Newspaper Widow can checkout the Facebook page and blog of Cecilia Brainard for details.

From here, I will move on to read Magdalena, which the author gave to me as a gift after our fun onstage conversation. ~ Review by Cris Ruffolo
Book Trailer of The Newspaper Widow in YouTube

Reading by Cecilia Brainard of The Newspaper Widow in YouTube

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