Look Forward to Never Look Back!
A Retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice Story Set in the Bronx
Boy, has it been a while since I read a Young Adult novel. In the span of one Saturday afternoon, Lilliam Rivera sucked me into the world of Never Look Back, her Latinx retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. This summer romance, set in contemporary Bronx, alternates chapters between the perspectives of two protagonists, Pheus and Eury. Pheus is a talented Dominican musician whose voice and guitar playing have all the girls fall head over heels for him, all except the new girl, Eury, a Puerto Rican survivor of Hurricanes Irma and Maria who is staying with her cousin Penelope for the summer.
She is not that impressed by Pheus’ bachata songs and prefers to listen to her musical hero Prince. Inevitably, music brings the two close enough for Eury to share a heavy, unbearable secret (Rivera has created a Spotify playlist for the book, including the plot-significant “Adore” by Prince and my new favorite “Tuyo” by Romeo Santos. Have a listen!)
Checking the weather is an innocent pastime for most, but not for Eury. The trauma of a hurricane uprooting her home is a difficult burden to live with. It becomes much harder when we realize that the hurricane was caused by an obsessive god-demon named Ato, angry from Eury’s rejection and determined to get her back. From flashbacks, we learn that Ato first appeared to five-year old Eury after her father left her family, never looking back.
Rivera skillfully adjusts the genre from fiction to fiction/fantasy as the reader wonders whether to believe that Ato is real or a manifestation of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Faith and the fight against the stigma of mental health therapy are central to the book. Pheus struggles against his principle, “if I don’t see it, I don’t trust it.” In contrast, Eury attends church and hopes her prayers will save her from Ato. Pheus’ attempt to read the Bible recalls the intense moment when Lot’s wife looked back, and God turned her into a pillar of salt.
All this eerie foreshadowing picks up into the fast pace of Part Two. In Part One, a reader familiar with Greek mythology might have enjoyed the cutesy references of secondary characters named Melaina, Jaysen, Thalia, and Clio. The transformation of the glitzy nightclub venue Dīs traction into el Inframundo, the Underworld, is simply jaw-dropping, pun intended (read the book to see what I mean!). This venue, managed by the sleazy Papa Sileno with his cleft square boots, is the location for both Pheus’ stardom among the living and his later infernal quest to get Eury back.
El Inframundo is not just a place for Greek mythology to flourish and fester. Its main figure is actually from the mythology of the Taino, an Arawak people of the Caribbean. Equally intriguing and original is the set-up and condition for the successful ascent to the human realm. Ultimately, it is hard to blame Pheus for turning around.
Throughout the book, Pheus is a history buff who provides racial and social commentary from his tendency to reflect on the past. He remarks that Orchard Beach, the scene of their summer parties, used to be Siwanoy territory, “so, you know, like most things, it’s a decent beach created by lots of bloodshed.” When he visits Central Park with his friends and they start running around like children, he thinks, “I’m sure they hate seeing us brown and Black kids acting out in their park,” and he later shares how the land used to be called Seneca Village, founded by working-class Black folks, before they were violently pushed out. These painful narratives feel relevant to the creeping gentrification of the Bronx. Pheus’ mom tells him, “your skin color means you can’t fail, means you are not allowed to make a mistake.” It hurts knowing Pheus made the mistake of looking back.
Rivera compels us to question why we look back into history and old mythologies, especially when it brings us so much pain. Yet, making these historical connections to contemporary stories can be vital. Pheus comments, “the person writing the narrative is the person in power.” Rivera uses her power to empower others.
Pheus matures and realizes the importance of his musical talent. His dad, named Apolo, tells him that love is not about possession (there’s no Daphne in this version to make him look like a complete hypocrite). That rings especially true for Eury, who stands firmly outside the possession of any man or demon. It broke my heart when she said, “For so long, I have believed I am meant to suffer.” Rivera’s writing shines when she gives this shy girl the spotlight. Eury’s story-arch is truly cathartic.
As I said, I devoured this book in one day. The rhythmic dialogue (sprinkled with some swearing) is like the music that is a required supplement to this reading experience. There are some obvious sentences that do more telling than showing, but it may be in the spirit of YA books.
Never Look Back is as painful as it is delightful. It shows violence intertwined in beauty, and asks us to see the turbulent storm and still see reasons for love and hope. I loved this book and I hope to see a movie adaptation, with an Afro-Latinx cast, that sharp dialogue interspersed with Spanish and Dominican Spanish, and a bachata and Prince filled soundtrack.
Luby Kiriakidi is finishing her MA in Classics at Durham University. She likes to teach languages and write. You can find her Ancient Greek and Russian youtube videos here.
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