The debut novel from Mexican author Julian Herbert, “Tomb Song,” seems like a simple story: a middle-aged man, also named Julian, sits at the bedside of his mother, a former prostitute who is dying of leukemia.
But “Tomb Song” is more than an elegy, more than a meditation. Herbert takes a deep dive into an emotional, interconnected story on death, family, love and ambition, resulting in a work that is at once personal and universal.
The story opens with Julian contacting family members he hasn’t seen in years. His distant older brother, now living in Japan, implores Julian to gather everyone at their mother’s bed side. “I suppose he’s lived abroad for so long he’s ended up swallowing the exotic pill of advertising via the Abuelita cocoa powder slogan: There’s-No-Greater-Love-Than-The-Love-of-the-Great-Mexican-Family.” In reality their siblings, all of whom had different fathers (“my father ... is the least spectacular boyfriend”), have grown apart, and the Mexico his brother remembers resembles little of the country Julian lives in today.
As Herbert tells the story of Julian’s vigil, he allows for the emotional trajectory of memory to dictate the narrative structure, meaning we move easily from the hospital to ruminations on the Mexican pollical system, to childhood events that established Julian’s complicated present-day relationship with his mother, to meta passages about the writing of this novel — which largely takes place at his mother’s hospital bedside.
The book — like Julian, like his mother, like their relationship — is messy, but given the careful, poetic language and musical paragraphs, it’s clear the leaps and transitions between narratives, times and countries, are intentional, meant to mimic the reflective turmoil that comes when experiencing death for the first time.
Besides, Herbert provides plenty of footholds for readers to catch their breath, such as a one-page chapter on Julian reconnecting with a childhood friend after 20 years.
“We were perfectly comfortable: it was as if our last chat had taken place the day before ... I guess the next time we’re together, when we’re 60 or so, we’ll go back to being children again. Friendship is one of the great mysteries of life on Earth.”
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Showcasing the dirt and shine present in individuals, families, countries, and art forms, “Tomb Song” is a powerful, bittersweet debut.