Outside the Bones is daring and original, and a little bit funny too. For the first time an English language novel explores the mysterious and sensuously dark world of Palo Monte, an Afro-Caribbean religio-magical belief system similar to Haitian Vodun. The novel takes the perspective of a hilariously loud and street-toughened, but ultimately tender-hearted, New Yorker named Fina Mata. She dabbles in witchcraft, and her unrequited love for her upstairs neighbor, the musician Chico, leads her to put a spell—or fufú—on him. The guy gets sick, but, sadly, not love-sick. Just as he recovers, two potential rivals show up: a girl who flirts with Chico even as she claims to be his daughter and Chico’s long-lost girlfriend, a former Miss Universe. Mortified, Fina asks the powerful Spanish Harlem Palero Tata Victor Tumba Fuego to do the fufú of all fufús. Tata Victor’s grudging compliance takes Fina deep into the world of Palo, and puts her on a collision course with a vengeful Palo spirit. In its exploration of the supernatural, social relations and sexuality, the novel combines a comic approach with the allure of Anne Rice, the eroticism of Oscar Hijuelos and the lyricism and depth of Toni Morrison.
One of the most striking tenets of Palo Monte is that the skull and bones of a murdered or evil person can be put in a cauldron, along with sticks, earth and other “ingredients” to “make” an nfuiri, a potent spirit that carries out the commands of a Palero, the master of the cauldron. Fina’s visits to Tata Victor in Spanish Harlem unveil for readers the world of Palo Monte cauldrons and the spirits tied to them—nkisis and nfuiris, to which the reader may react like Fina, with fear but also fascination.
The settings are mostly in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Spanish Harlem and Central Park. There are brief flashbacks to Puerto Rico such as when the book backtracks in the spirit’s point of view tracing how she was “born” from a skull and bones in the countryside on the island. Tata Victor brings her bones to Spanish Harlem, re-buries and “seasons” them in Central Park, and remakes the spirit into his “servant” nfuiri. But when Victor tries to further exert his will over her, the spirit resists.
A violent murder in Spanish Harlem leads Fina, who had studiously avoided it, to be “cut” or initiated in Palo. Now she must decide whether she can take part in the fundamental ritual of Palo and other Afro-Caribbean religions—possession. However, this novel represents possession differently from the pea-soup demonics of The Exorcist. Instead, here it is shown more playfully and sensually to be a union between spirit and human occurring on the worldly plane. Fina finally understands that mastering her fear of Palo might allow her not just to tame the destructive nfuiri but to unlock the mystery of multiple murders in the past and present. Outside the Bones will captivate anyone interested in the “sassy supernatural,” as Cristina García termed it in her advance praise of the book, in mysteries, and in the exotic worlds that lurk behind the everyday facade of the city.