In "The Miracle Worker," one of the nine stories that make up Mia Alvar's debut collection In the Country, a wealthy Bahraini woman hires a Filipino special education teacher to try to coax some communication from her daughter, a profoundly disabled girl with extensive physical deformities. The mother wants nothing more than for her daughter to be "normal." She explains to the teacher: "Often people do not love difference."
The teacher knows this, of course; she's left her home in the Philippines for a country where she doesn't speak the language and isn't yet quite familiar with the customs. While shopping, another Filipino expatriate mistakes her for a maid. She's a lot like many of the other characters in Alvar's stories — exceptional, not exactly able to fit in, in a country that will never quite be home for her. Often people do not love difference, but people who are different can sometimes find love, and something like a home, in unexpected places.
You could call that one of the themes of In the Country, but it's difficult to reduce Alvar's stunning short story collection to just one idea. Her book, as Walt Whitman might say, contains multitudes — not just because of its varied settings, from the Philippines to the U.S. to Bahrain, but because every character is different, and portrayed with love and a rare kind of understanding. These are people who have little to nothing in common with one another, except that they're all trying to find a home, and it's always a more challenging task than anyone would expect.
The collection begins with "The Kontrabida," about Steve, a pharmacist who returns to his childhood home in suburban Manila to visit his beloved mother and his dying father, whom he grew up fearing and resenting. His father always forbade his wife from working outside the home; now that he's ill and confined to his bed, she has opened a small store in their house. Just as Steve starts to feel like he's actually home again, he learns something that makes him realize that his mother might not be the saintly person he always thought she was.
There's also a shocking revelation in "Esmeralda," though it's revealed more deliberately, with an increasing sense of dread as the story progresses. The title character is a Filipino woman in 2001 New York who works as a maid for families and in an office building. The story is told in the second person, which lends it an almost sickening sense of urgency. "After today, you'll never hear a plane in the same way again," Alvar writes in the story's second paragraph. The reader sees what's coming, but the conclusion is still shocking and horrifying, with a final sentence that produces chills.
Alvar is perhaps at her best when chronicling the lives of underdogs and misfits, people who have been shunted into the margins of society, ignored or bullied. In "The Virgin of Monte Ramon," young Danny Wilson is mocked by his schoolmates for his disability; he has "only the beginnings of legs; below that, a semblance of ankles; and finally two misshapen knobs, smooth as stones worked over by water." He befriends Annelise, a poverty-stricken girl dealing with her own serious illness, and the two are mercilessly teased by the town's wealthier, able-bodied children.
It's a tough story to read — Alvar's writing is unsparing, and the misery Danny and Annelise are forced to deal with is sickening. But they find something approaching redemption, and the moment is beautiful: ""But for one brief moment, in the rain and mud," Danny reflects, "I saw a world where everyone was struggling in the body he or she'd been given. That world and struggle seemed bearable to me, and even beautiful."
Alvar finds beauty in the unlikeliest of places, and that's what makes In the Country such an inspired, remarkable book. Her characters, even the lucky ones, are never far from affliction, and never really close to home, even when they've lived in the same place their whole lives. Alvar finds triumph in the torment and deliverance in the agony. It's a message she makes clear in "Esmeralda:" "And now you know why saints crave suffering, invite all kinds of pain so they can feel in some small way what Christ, whom they love, felt." Pain, of course, never needs an invitation, but welcoming it anyway can maybe teach us something great about ourselves — as great as the stories in this impressive debut.