Never Look Back by Lilliam Rivera sparks new life and culture into the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice by framing it as a love letter to Puerto Rico.
The book follows Pheus, a Black Domincan teenager with a passion for bachata music and Eury, a Black Puerto Rican girl who is haunted by a mysterious entity named Ato. When the two meet, there is an instant attraction. Those familiar with the classic Greek myth will recognize some of the most familiar plot points and keep an eye out for all of the twists and turns that make it so famous. Rivera explores the intergenerational trauma and history of Puerto Rico through this story, making it all the more captivating and timely.
Eury lived through both Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and I appreciate that Rivera pays special attention to the ways the hurricanes have affected Eury in her everyday life. Eury is terrified that this type of event will follow her through her life. Rivera is careful to explain why certain sounds or visuals trigger Eury, and by doing so, lets the reader truly envelop themselves within the character.
Meanwhile with Pheus, music is such a big part of his character and arc. The song choices Rivera chose for him are so great. You could really feel in the text how much they each meant to him; he felt them in his soul. The overarching song throughout the book is “Adore” by Prince, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t stop the book multiple times to listen to the song at crucial moments in the narrative. (Sidenote: there is also an awesome playlist curated by the author available on Spotify!)
Rivera is great at building the atmosphere in the eerie limbo that Eury finds herself after an accident leaves her in between worlds. The descriptions of the absence of familiar sounds, the description of Puerto Rico as Eury knows it, and the incorporation of symbolism via animals like coquis and llorosos birds is very vivid. Through this sequence, the text teaches us that confronting pain and fear is the only way to move forward. Denying this can create harmful and toxic consequences. Rivera also explains spirits in a very compelling manner. She asks, “What is a spirit if not the result of a colonized, traumatic state?” Framing the entire work through this question, the reader really gets a sense of the message she is trying to get across and the entirely decolonial way she asks the reader to interpret it.
Never Look Back is an enthralling, fresh, and important view of an old classic tale. Fans of the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice will enjoy the way Rivera weaves Puerto Rican history, tales and wonder into such an iconic couple.