Review: Loteria by Mario Alberto Zambrano

9th July 2013

pg1*This book was sent to me by the publisher Harper in exchange for an honest review.

Mario Alberto Zambrano opens his novel with a description of lotería, a game similar to bingo. As he says, there “are fifty-four cards and each comes with a riddle, un dicho. There is a traditional set of riddles, but sometimes dealers create their own to trick the players.” When the listeners determine the card the caller describes, they cover it.

As the title of the novel and each chapter is representative of an aspect of the game, it’s relatively easy to link the chapters and the story they tell to the card, yet the “riddle” aspect of the game becomes much more complicated as Luz, the main character, tells her story.

Her sister Estrella is in ICU; her father is in jail, and Luz doesn’t know where her mother is. A ward of the state, she begins her journal with a sketch of la araña – the spider – describing the spiders that crawl up the walls of the room where she is staying, a place away from her family. Though it’s evident that something traumatic has happened (Luz won’t talk to anyone but her journal), Zambrano doesn’t let on, only revealing more of Luz, her family, and her tale as each card is called at the start of a chapter.

My only complaint is that Luz, writing in her journal, doesn’t tell her story in linear fashion. At times, it’s difficult to link when and where a specific event took place, and thus I felt distanced from her story. The big reveal is also confusing in the telling, yet the significance of what is happening and its effect on Luz is all too clear.

Several people on Goodreads complained that the use of Spanish was a stumbling block for the story, but I loved it. This is the story of a young Mexican American. How else could her story be told? She isn’t fluent in the language of her mother and father, but she knows the language of lotería.

Mario Alberto Zambrano’s debut novel is a quick read, and the format dares the reader to read just one more set until the final card is played.

Add this to your Goodreads shelf.

  • Andi

    This one looks super cool. I definitely wanna try it.

    • I love the idea behind it. Flat out love it.

      I’ll be curious to see what you think.

  • Ti Reed

    I’m not sure this one is for me but I am glad you reviewed it. I haven’t seen any other reviews of it so far and it’s been listed on a lot of “to read” lists.

    • It popped in my mailbox right before I started seeing it everywhere. It’s an odd little book, and though I wasn’t in love with it, I’ll be curious to see what else the author writes.

  • The mix of Doninican slang and English was one of the things I liked most about The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It made the story feel more authentic. I’d definitely like it in this book, too. I’ll have to look into this one.

    • Or DOMINICAN, you know.

      • Yeah, I really get irritated when people on GR complain about other languages being inserted into a text. It’s not often enough that you can’t understand, and he’s writing about her experience. How could he not do that?

        This wasn’t entirely successful for me, but the language had nothing to do with it.

  • I have been seeing this one for a while. I’m not entirely convinced because the issues many found with this book are probably going to bug me, but I’m really intrigued by it – the riddle aspect of the book is very inviting.

    • Which issues specifically?

  • iliana

    This I must read! I used to play loteria all the time when I spent my summers in Mexico with my family so for that aspect alone I’d probably enjoy it.

    • Did you really? I had never actually heard of it but love the idea.

  • I enjoyed the non-linear way the story is told. It felt like I was putting together a puzzle, in a way…
    Totally agree with you on the Spanish language part!