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One Year of Ugly by Caroline Mackenzie

“Trinidad likes to tout itself as this cosmopolitan melting pot, swirling with all the flavors of the race rainbow. But in fact, if you’re not one of, or a blend of, the two majority races on the island, a pile of Otherness follows you like a lingering fart that won’t waft away, the stench manifesting itself in relentless catcalls, the unshakable instinct that you should always keep your eyes on the pavement, and a keen awareness that you are constantly being watched.”

If you were to do a quick Google search on the small dual-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, you’d find that the top links after Wikipedia, Britannica, and the country’s tourist site, are American (a CIA factbook) and British (BBC). The tourist page self-describes the islands as “the undisputed ‘Culture Capital’ of the Caribbean,” a “paradise,” the home to “a blaze of colour” that is Carnaval, “the biggest street party on Earth.” The CIA page is a litany of statistics and the BBC country profile touches on gang and drug-related violence and the reliance on oil that initially led to wealth and then high unemployment. Their first woman president was sworn in in 2018, and the prime minister is a volcanologist. A former British colony, they’ve used their natural resources in order to better the lives of its citizens, and they’re now in a period of uncertainty, along with many other nations around the world.

In comparison, any research on Venezuela’s leader, Nicolas Maduro, and his socialist “utopia” will show you a grim outlook. His regime is one that is nearly unthinkable in our present day, more reminiscent of the mid-20th century. In 2013 he assumed the presidency after the death of his predecessor, and two years later, in response to sanctions issued by the U.S., he asked the National Assembly to approve an extension of his rule by decree. In 2018, opposition leaders were jailed and exiled as Maduro retained his power through further manhandling of the system. Shortages of essentials and a generally poor standard of living sparked protests in 2014 against the dictatorship—and both the unrest and Maduro’s administration persist. The World Bank has recorded 4.6 million people have fled Venezuela between 2016 and the end of 2019.

It is in the thick of this that the Palacios leave their homes in Venezuela to quietly and illegally take up residency in Trinidad. The title, One Year of Ugly, might seem like it is implying a torturous time ahead for the Palacio family, but it is literally pointing to the man, Feo or Ugly, who is holding them accountable for the money that their late Aunt Celia owes to him. His punishment is in turn somewhat torturous, though minimal. They’re tasked with housing hoards of people Ugly smuggles into the country, but the Palacios make the best of it, even befriending some of them, and they’re too afraid to make much of a fuss anyway, fearing that their own immigration status will get them all sent back to Venezuela.

So it was a surprise when above everything, the harsh reality of their new lives in Trinidad and the family drama that boils just beneath the surface, it is the absurdity of their situation that the narrator, Yola, makes clear is the driving force of this book. The publisher’s note compares Mackenzie’s debut to Crazy Rich Asians and Where’d You Go, Bernadette, and though the humor seemed to me to be a little more subtle than it is in Maria Semple’s book, the humor is there. Mackenzie’s words feel far more satirical though in the way that it bites into you and makes you unsettled until you see that the main character isn’t. So instead, you can try to get comfortable and play along, keeping an eye out for whatever additional lunacy is about to happen.

“But we stayed mum – because no matter what we were going through, at least we could buy Panadol for our stress migraines and toilet paper for our anxiety induced diarrhea and groceries for our comfort eating. Maybe the grass here was greener, just fertilized with an equally pungent brand of horseshit.”

After the first chapter, when we meet Ugly and he holds the men of the family at gunpoint, I thought first of Ingrid Rojas Contreras’ Fruit of the Drunken Tree and how the first few pages there too begin with a big trauma. That novel centers on similar turmoil in neighboring Colombia, but here, instead of letting this stranger’s threat scare her, it’s as if Yola’s response is to reject that it is happening, choosing instead to hurl judgment at her uncle Mauricio (Celia’s partner) who had two illegitimate children, a toddler and a teenager, come out of the woodwork, just as the rest of their drama is unfolding.

Throughout the novel, Yola’s sharp tongue hovers just above a seriousness that made Fruit of the Drunken Tree, for example, a much more difficult read than One Year of Ugly is. I was easily drawn into Yola’s inflated vocabulary (I learned the word “antediluvian”) and her observational humor. But it would be insulting to say that Mackenzie simply took a reality that plagues the millions of people under Maduro’s thumb and wrote about it in a way that will make her readers laugh—no. As a native of Trinidad watching Venezuelans come, fleeing their homes for a chance at freedom, she acknowledged the messy reality and spun a story that is hard to turn away from, one in which a reader can learn from while being entertained, can laugh out loud at just before gasping in shock, can grow to both love and hate the human traffickers just as Yola herself does. It’s a wonderful trick.

“I wouldn’t trade the past year for anything. Wasn’t that what life was all about anyway? The shit hitting the fan with projectile force, splattering you head to toe in fecal matter, but rolling with it, living in the moment and drawing whatever sweetness you could from that shit-covered sugar cane?”

Yola herself is a writer, and though she mostly hid that side of herself and her clandestine work on a novel, the one person she confided in about her writing successes and the general craft was Aunt Celia. She is one of the most important characters in the book even though she is deceased for the entirety of the present action. When Yola is belatedly presented with the manuscript of the memoir Celia had been working on leading up to her death, Yola is comforted by the fact that even a year later she can still feel close to her tía. She and Yola were in turn each other’s favorite relative and it shows in the trust Celia gives to Yola through the honesty and vulnerability exhibited in her life story. In it, Celia writes about how she was well aware of her on/off-again husband Mauricio’s philandering, and she considered herself quite the hot commodity. There is much romance and drama to be had between the pages dictating the lives of both women. The duality is great as Yola literally picks up Celia’s manuscript when she’s in need of guidance in her own love life.

“I wished in that moment that I had Aunt Celia’s hardness, that I could squelch that curiosity, forget what I felt when he left me shaking in my bedroom, or at the very least smother my licentious imagination that kept thrusting me into saxophone-soundtracked soft-porn reveries of him.”

I adored how the chapters advance and Yola becomes more of a fully formed person on the page, like a photographer learning to grow more comfortable in front of the camera as well as behind. At first the majority of the page space is describing her big family and the strangers they care for, including cattle farmers, hoteliers, prostitutes, intellectuals, political enemies, etc. Slowly the story picks up and it’s less about the consequences Aunt Celia left them all with, but about how they continue to react to the changing landscape. It takes on some aspects of a telenovela, with a surprise pregnancy, an ostentatious underground strip club, limbs being broken by henchmen, illicit sex, etc. It’s a highly intelligent book, though it walks the line of decency with characters referring to other Venezuelan refugees as ‘illegals’, while dissecting the escalation of a truly impossible situation. I was left wondering if I was to have firsthand experience anywhere near as extreme as that which the Palacios are confronted with—would I, could I, have handled it with a level head in the way that Yola did? Would I have survived and thrived in the face of such adversity in a strange country? Might I have compensated for all of the roller coaster emotions by getting into bed with the enemy??

Odds are I’ll never know the answers to any of those questions. Odds are even better that I’ll never stop searching for them by indulging in more books like the incomparable One Year of Ugly.

One Year of Ugly

By Caroline Mackenzie

400 pages. 2020.


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