By Lisa St. Aubin de Tern
Little, Brown & Co.
352 pp., $23.95
What's so compelling about Lisa St. Aubin de Tern's memoir "The Hacienda" is that she survives to tell her story.
Seven years in the Andes is a long time for a young English girl married to an absent, unstable husband. But in this memoir, we meet a woman who overcomes almost every obstacle in her path.
Her story starts in London, 1972, when she meets Don Jaim Tern, a South American aristocrat. She is 17; he is nearly 20 years older, the last of the Tern dynasty. He and his friends regale her with tales of the beauty, vastness, and grandeur of his family's Venezuelan estate, founded by Spanish family members on the second voyage of Christopher Columbus.
Why this smart, strong woman chooses to marry this older foreigner (in the midst of her Cambridge University entrance exams) is hard to understand. She barely knows him. She tells us that because her father is South American, and because he had warned her against visiting the Andes, she was eager to go. By the end of the book she is far more discerning.
Her English mother, who'd had no success with marriage (already on her fourth), doesn't encourage a wedding. But throughout the story, she remains her daughter's best friend. Their correspondence becomes Tern's link to the world outside the hacienda, and her letters home form an integral part of the memoir.
After they marry, Jaime admits he is a fugitive, on the lam for robbing a bank, and not even allowed home in Venezuela. They go anyway - dragging along two pedigreed beagles to boost the bloodlines at the estate.
But it turns out Jaime has left out other details, as well. When they get to the ranch, he drops her off at a small hut with a dirt floor, no water, no toilet, no furniture, no money, and no food. He leaves and seldom returns. The "Big House" she'd heard so much about is a crumbling chicken restaurant.
Because she is the lady, the "Doa," of the estate, workers aren't permitted to socialize with her. "Qu dirn?" ("What would people say?") is the invisible web that keeps everyone trapped in their proper places - workers, wives, and foreigners. Only by quietly sidestepping this force can Tern make the changes she needs.
But here in rural Latin America, change is slow. The tragic poisoning of a worker's child impels Tern to devote all her energy to improving conditions for la gente. She also gets the sugar furnace running and plants avocado and coffee trees to bring in cash. Best of all, despite a doctor's prognosis that she'd never have children, she becomes a mother.
Yet things get worse for husband Jaime, who seems to suffer from mental illness, and Tern fears for her life. In the end, she is forced to make a difficult choice. Readers can only admire the courage and strength of one so young.
This memoir gives us a rich slice of rural life in South America, of a place unspoiled by popular culture. Inside, it's a merciless place of toil and despair. But on the outside, it's a lush, tropical paradise, filled with ripe fruits and brilliant birds, with the cloying fragrance of wild lilies and jasmine, with scurrying cockroaches and noisy nights of cicadas "tuning up the orchestra that never tuned." She describes sounds, smells, and sights in full sensorial beauty. Her love for the land infuses each page, as does her respect for the people.
This is Teran's third memoir. She has written of Italy, as well as several novels, poetry, and a collection of short stories.
* Elizabeth A. Brown writes from Hillsborough, N.C.