Mythology, Trauma, and Bachata in Lilliam Rivera’s Never Look Back

Only Lilliam Rivera could write a beautifully haunting, healing ode to our isla in guise of a young adult novel wrapped in a reimagined myth, then tied off in a bright bow flourishing ode to a magical, musical Bronx. Her latest book, Never Look Back, is both a powerful tribute to Puerto Rico, and all Boricuas left in intense grief after the devastation of Hurricane Maria, and a love story between her protagonists Pheus and Eury that transcends even death itself.

Never Look Back is not simply a modern retelling of the Greek myth Orpheus and Eurydice, where a musician, who is the son of a god, must brave the Underworld to bring his dead love back but ultimately fails. Rivera draws from several pantheons across the world, most importantly the Taíno, the indigenous people of the Caribbean, to shape the tale of two teenagers who fall for each other and find themselves on a frightening journey that will define them not only as a couple, but who they are as individuals forever more.

We meet Pheus making his way uptown on the subway to his father’s home in the Bronx, where he spends his summers. He’s a naturally talented musician with bachatas dancing in his head, but despite his father’s wishes for him to take it more seriously and sign up for an after-school program, Pheus chooses to focus on a more “sensible” career. Though Pheus loves his Afro-Dominican father fiercely, he’s been on disability and money issues played a large part in his parents’ divorce. Not one to take girls too seriously, or much of anything, Pheus gets knocked with a one-two punch when he sees Eury for the first time.

In many ways, Eury is a walking ghost hiding behind her thick, too-long hair. Her mother, aunt and cousin ascribe Eury’s trauma to Hurricane Maria destroying her home in Puerto Rico. But what she bears on her shoulders is much deeper and painful. Stalked since childhood by an obsessive and vengeful spirit/god named Ato, Eury is convinced she caused the hurricane when she rejected him. After moving to Florida, Eury is plagued by what her mother terms “episodes,” but are actually her encounters with Ato. She sends Eury to spend the summer in the Bronx with her aunt and cousin, Penelope, who live in the same building as Pheus.

It could have been easy for Rivera to fast-track their romance, but I enjoyed that it was very much not love at first sight for Eury (or Pheus, for whom it was more like intense interest), and she writes him off as a good-looking player who’s a little annoying. She has other things on her mind and Pheus is intrigued by a challenge. However, when Ato finds Eury even in the Bronx and Pheus helps her escape him, he is the first person she knows who actually sees the spirit. It is that connection, which Pheus struggles to accept, that gives Eury hope for the first time in years.

As their relationship blossoms, danger wearing false faces stalks them until, like in the original myth, Eury is stolen away to El Inframundo—the Underworld, and Pheus must discover who he is and what he really believes in to get her back. But while he starts his own journey—which takes him from the secret corners of New York City to the River Styx—Eury, no passive heroine, fights her own one-on-one battle against Ato and the sorrow, hate, and obsession he attempts to drown her in. And in the end, Pheus and Eury must save themselves to truly win their way back.

Rivera is careful in addressing mental illness, as Eury’s issues seem to manifest themselves as depression and she likely is struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, as anyone who has gone through such a huge trauma would be. However, in many ways, it’s so much worse for Eury since she carries a unique survivor’s guilt. Though supernatural in origin, Eury’s guilt mimics those of us across the diaspora who grieve for our homeland, and feel helpless in many ways to help beyond donations. Even if our families have been on the mainland U.S. for years, Puerto Rico is still our land and those are our people. The hurt we carry is infinite, multiplying each day as the U.S. government continues to openly abandon and condemn us and natural disasters continue to plague the island.

Eury and Pheus are complicated characters, who both struggle with the fears of teenagers living in a violent, uncertain world and who face the unknown both in their personal futures and the future of the world around them. I found myself falling in love with each of them multiple times as the story progressed. I also appreciated how deftly Rivera weaves their Caribbean cultures as a beautiful backbone to their attraction and love.

I read this book deep in the bitter winter but her words jumped off the page, wrapped me in the early summer balmy humidity of Puerto Rico and the heat rising off the pavement of a bustling Bronx. I found myself in tears and holding a sense of deep release at the book’s end. Rivera is a master storyteller and a gift to all her readers, but especially Boricuas. Never Look Back is important on so many levels, emotionally and culturally, but most importantly, it is a fantastic story of adventure, love, discovery, and redemption. I dare you to put it down once you start reading.

Never Look Back is available from Bloomsbury.
Read the first two chapters here.

Angela Maria Spring is the owner of Duende District, a mobile boutique bookstore by and for people of color, where all are welcome. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, was a 2018 Kirkus Fiction Prize judge, and has work forthcoming in Radar Poetry, Pilgrimage, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, and Third Wednesday. You can find her on Twitter at @BurquenaBoricua or at duendedistrict.com.

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