An ancient story of love and loss finds new life amongst Afro-Latinx teens in Lilliam Rivera’s new young adult novel, Never Look Back.
Pheus — short for Orpheus — has spent his whole life in the Bronx, charming everyone in the neighborhood with his charisma and his beautiful voice. He plans to spend an easy summer singing bachata and playing his guitar on the beach. But all of that changes when he meets Eury.
Eury is visiting her cousin for the summer, still reeling from the loss of her home in Hurricane Maria and all of the trauma that entails. To make matters worse, she’s certain that the suffering caused by the hurricane is actually her fault. Since childhood, she’s been haunted by an evil spirit that calls himself Ato. He will do whatever is necessary to drag Eury away from mortal life and force her to dwell with him forever in the underworld. He followed her from Puerto Rico to Florida, and now she’s certain that he’ll turn up in the Bronx. But she can’t even warn her family of the danger without making them afraid for her mental health, because no one will believe that it’s a spirit tormenting her and not just post-traumatic stress.
When she meets Pheus and he sings to her, some little part of her heart begins to hope again. Maybe she can overcome all the troubles that haunt her and love a boy with a voice like magic. For easy-going Pheus, Eury represents a complexity that’s completely outside of his experience. But to win her love, he’d do just about anything — even journey to the underworld to win her back from an evil spirit.
The metaphor at the center of Orpheus and Eurydice is a powerful one — sometimes, in order to move forward, you can’t look back. It’s easy to understand why this is a tale that weaves its way through all the layers of stories that we tell each other. It’s almost ironic that now, at this moment when the whole world is experiencing a trauma together and facing a reality forever altered, this particular story seems to be floating close to the surface.
Never Look Back definitely brings something new to the table by making these epic star-crossed lovers into Afro-Latinx teens in New York. In some versions of the tale, Eurydice feels almost like an afterthought — a girl who exists only to create an ordeal for the hero. It’s so often all about Orpheus and his talent and his journey. Here, Eury represents a total renovation of their dynamic. She comes to the table with her own baggage and her own story — and while Pheus has an arc, Eury’s trauma and the question of whether or not she can overcome it are the heart of the book. Comparing Never Look Back to other versions of the myth, the centering of Eury’s journey really shines.
But in some ways, Never Look Back is at its strongest when its source material can be forgotten. As a myth and folklore enthusiast, I tend to go into a retelling with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. As if to say, okay, I know who these people are and what they do — impress me! And as I began Never Look Back, I noted the names — most of the characters are named after figures from Greek mythology — and honestly felt a bit annoyed. It didn’t feel realistic. And then, as Greek mythology blended with Taino and other Afro-Caribbean beliefs, I realized that it doesn’t matter. This isn’t a note-for-note retelling. It’s something else altogether: a pensive exploration of the deep trauma historically suffered by colonized and enslaved peoples and how that entwines with more recent hardships, like Hurricane Maria, whose damage is worsened by the remnants of those same institutions.
That seems like a lot for a YA novel, but Never Look Back wraps its deeper musings in a languid summer romance between two earnest teens whose charisma ensures that the reader will keep walking forward through the story. While some part of me might wish the mythology was a bit more streamlined, I can’t deny that Never Looks Back sings its own love song to the world. I’m sure that readers will follow where it leads.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.