Big Angel has to bury his mother and celebrate his birthday over the same weekend — and he himself is not long for this world.
That’s the setup for Luis Alberto Urrea’s new novel, “The House of Broken Angels,” a story that brings the de La Cruz family vividly to life. Urrea’s omniscient narrator flits in and out of the heads of the various members of the extended and complicated family, revealing loyalties, grudges, fears, and hopes playing out in the shadow of death — including the death of a family member that continues to haunt them many years later.
“The House of Broken Angels” also is an immigrant story, focused on the risks, rewards and misunderstandings inherent in leaving Mexico to start a new life in the United States. Meanwhile, Little Angel, Big Angel’s half-brother, struggles to define his place in the family given that his mother is white and he was raised apart from his siblings. Taken together, the book wrestles with the nature of belonging — in a country and in a family.
Urrea is a beautiful stylist, filling the story with striking images. Here, for example, Big Angel recalls riding on the back of his father’s motorcycle as a boy, his eyes closed and his senses alive:
“Somewhere in that vast tapestry of interwoven odors, Angel was sure he could smell the dead. Not their bodies, but their souls. His newest theory was that the dead came as ghosts in sudden finger-thin wafts of perfume or cigarette or hair’s sweet soap scents when it was drying in the sun.”
Death lingers over “The House of Broken Angels,” but life pulses through the story, as well. Urrea masterfully balances the two in the exceptional novel.