I had the opportunity to see Cardinal speak at a panel at the Miami Book Fair in November 2019. The panel had four authors speaking about Caribbean mythology and storytelling. Needless to say, it was an excellent event. I picked up a copy of Five Midnights that day.
I will try my best not to include spoilers, but please be wary if you plan on reading this book.
Five Midnights is a young adult horror mystery that follows Lupe Dávila as she spends the summer with her uncle, the chief of police, on the hunt for a killer from legends. Five childhood friends are hunted one by one.
Some believe it is their shady pasts finally catching up to them. Others believe it is El Cuco, a mythical beast of Latinx lore that is used to scare children. But what if El Cuco isn’t a myth? What if he’s real? It’s up to Lupe to find out and save her new friend, Javier Utierre.
What I appreciated the most about this YA novel is the authentic Puerto Rican voice. Coming from a Boricua family myself, I could clearly hear my mother’s and grandmother’s voices within the characters and narration. Cardinal creates that genuine voice by using a lyrical rhythm and cadence reminiscent of the breeze blowing through the trees and music on every street corner.
The island comes alive with Cardinal’s deft descriptions. From the mouthwatering details of alcapurria and chicharrones to the sounds of the busy streets of Old San Juan, all the senses come alive when the characters talk about their love for their culture.
But Cardinal does not shy away from the less shiny neighborhoods that tourists don’t see. She creates a candid picture of the communities broken by gentrification. As tourism pushes the locals out, many kids turn to a life of crime to make ends meet.
The issue of how tourism and outsiders taking over the natives’ island coincides with Lupe’s character growth as she reconciles her two cultures. Her father’s side of the family is Puerto Rican, but her mother is American. She grew up in Vermont in a middle-class family. Throughout the novel she’s blamed as part of the problem by some and classified as a tolerated outsider by others. Lupe is often set on edge when she has to pass the, “How Puerto Rican are you?” test.
Lupe feels belittled when the native-born Puerto Ricans call her Gringa and tell her she’s not really one of them. This is especially irksome as she inherited her mother’s pale complexion and is white passing.
Her anger is understandable, but so is the ire of those who grew up on the island, especially those feeling the push from colonial influences in the poor neighborhoods. Lupe doesn’t fully understand her privilege in comparison. At the same time, islanders like Javier and Marisol don’t understand the life she leads.
Though Lupe comes from a middle-class Vermont household, she lives with an alcoholic father who checked out after her mother left them. At 16 years old, she takes care of herself and watches her father waste away, no longer expecting anything from him. She is lonely and disconnected, as her father is supposed to be the lifeline to her Puerto Rican heritage.
The constant questioning of her true identity is one many kids in her situation understand. Coming from more than one culture, it’s easy to feel lost when one belongs to multiple identities and yet belongs to none of them. Lupe’s character development throughout follows the journey she takes to find her place among the people of the island and the role she plays outside of that identity.
The story’s pacing is excellent, as the pages fly by during action sequences but slow down when the characters stop to reflect on their experiences. The language and syntax create that rhythmic ebb and flow of moving foward and pausing for breath.
Toward the end as the action comes to a climax it feels a bit fast, especially with so many jumps in point-of-view as they battle their enemy. The ending also catches the reader off guard, as it feels abrupt and like there’s a page or two missing for the denouement.
The end of this horror novel highlights the power of belief and myth within a culture. Lupe starts the book as a nonbeliever but by the time the clock runs out to save Javier she’s willing to take a leap of faith.
This is especially interesting as the skeptical side of Lupe coincides with her Americanness. But the willingness to believe in the legends of her father’s culture brings her closer to her Puerto Rican roots. The story’s focus on Latinx mythology brought to mind a discussion at the panel I attended.
Cardinal and the other authors talked about how as time and society progresses, the new generations take a more pragmatic view of the world, deferring to logic, education, and facts.
But the belief in the supernatural is, “just a fingernail scratch away beneath the surface”, as one writer said. Belief and mythology are so intrinsic to these culture, it’s what keeps the new generations connected to their ancestors. It’s a reminder of where they come from.
I really enjoyed this book and am looking forward to the next in the series, Category Five, coming out June 2, 2020.
Who else read this book? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments and share!