You may easily imagine the scenes in Jessica Zafra’s latest book and first novel, The Age of Umbrage, as tinged with pastel colors and framed in obsessively symmetrical shots. But while the slim novel may have the touches of a Wes Anderson film—a precocious protagonist, eccentric supporting characters, snappy dialogue, family drama—it remains distinctly Pinoy and completely Zafraesque.
Told through the author’s unique voice and unmistakable wit, the novel is the coming-of-age story of Guadalupe “Guada” de Leon who grows up in the servants’ quarter of one of the richest families in the Philippines, the Almagros.
Guada doesn’t belong in the world of the Almagros, biologically and socioeconomically speaking—but the Almagro boys can’t help but be drawn to her. They admire Guada who is too smart for her age. They interact with her as if she were a grown-up. Gabriel, the eldest and the heir to the Almagro Empire, discusses Charles Dickens and Edgar Rice Burrhoughs novels with her. Guillermo, the aloof black sheep with artistic inclinations, watches Fellini films with her. Both boys, despite their family’s wealth, or maybe because of it, are restless, lonely old souls, and it is with Guada that they find the kind of connection they have never built with their own kin.
At school, because of her intelligence and propensity for solitude, Guada is bullied. But she learns not to care. When her tormentors lock her up in the restroom, by the time the school janitor arrives in the scene, she has already finished a Thomas Hardy novel and listened to an entire Prince album.
On another level, The Age of Umbrage is also satirical. Set in the later years of the Marcos regime and the early years of the Cory administration, the novel offers a subtle but hilarious critique on the Philippine elite and their relationship with power. It also lets you in on a few nasty secrets that are most likely anchored on true accounts (or actual gossip). Here are Don Juans who are oversexed but are underperforming assets outside the boudoir. Here are their young wives and mistresses, who collect European art and prattle about the sex lives of their neighbors in their gated village.
If you’re in the know about these “genteel” circles enough, you’ll probably recognize the real people many of the characters in the novel are based on. Here’s an obvious one: “Freddy Boy Nuñez, a once-brilliant journalist turned all-around sycophant.”
But behind all its cleverness, there is a poignance to Zafra’s first stab at the novel. Central to this book, apart from the difficult drama of growing up in a place one doesn’t belong to, is Guada’s relationship with her mother Siony, with whom she shares the servant’s room at the Almagros. In perhaps the most moving moment in the book, Guada realizes just how much love her mother has for her—but only after a particularly trying episode presents itself.
In one of their conversations, Guada tells Gabriel, “Sometimes books make me sad.” To which Gabriel replies, “Like when someone dies.”
Guada adds, “Or when I really like a story, and it ends. I wish they’d go on longer.”
“Don’t you want the hero to live happily ever after?” Gabriel asks.
“I can’t tell if he’s happy,” Guada shoots back. “The story’s over.”
The Age of Umbrage is a novel about transitions both societal and personal, which of course can sometimes happen at once. Or this may simply be a novel for those who love to hear and tell stories, and those who have only stories to survive. This novel ends when you don’t want it to. But we can tell Guada is happy, despite all that she’s gone through. And that makes us a little happy, too.
The Age of Umbrage was recently published by Ateneo de Manila University Press, under its Bughaw imprint.