Gun Dealers’ Daughter examines a revolt of the young and rich

Gina Apostol's latest novel depicts a would-be revolutionary in Marcos’s Philippines
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Gun Dealers' Daughter
By Gina Apostol. W.W. Norton, 224 pp, hardcover

“The mind at the best of times,” writes Gina Apostol, “is a ruinous house, with traps.” This line, early in Gun Dealers’ Daughter, serves as the underpinning to the acclaimed author’s North American debut novel, a fractured history of the titular heroine, Soledad Soliman.

At her parents’ New York mansion, contending with a long-term emotional collapse, Sol, as she is widely known, constructs a vibrant mosaic of her privileged youth in the Philippines, while frequently admitting to her own faulty memory.

Decades earlier, the life afforded by her family’s arms business—lavish international residences, soirees with the country’s elite, a chauffeured limousine at her disposal—sheltered her from much of the Marcos era’s turmoil. Attending university in Manila, however, was an awakening; she fell in with the student-revolutionary crowd and embarked on a tryst with a well-connected young insurgent.

Realizing the consequences that her clan’s transactions imposed on innocent citizens, Sol agreed to aid her new cohorts in their large- and small-scale schemes for societal change; the story explores how their idealism, naiveté, and arrogance conspired toward tragedy. “An inflated notion of virtue,” she reflects, “infected our brains.”

Here, the geopolitical topic and distant tone are reminiscent of two works by literary icon Joan Didion: the novel The Last Thing He Wanted, where a daughter takes over her father’s weapons enterprise in Central America, and the essay collection The White Album, which catalogues Didion’s psychiatric frailties and the cultural unrest in the United States.

Winner of the Philippine National Book Award for her novels Bibliolepsy and The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, Apostol writes artfully in these pages about the turbulent social and bureaucratic climate, and seamlessly introduces the nation’s colonial and military histories. Sol, an eloquent if unreliable narrator, strikes the reader as an instrument of both individual and shared experience, her circumstances uncommon, her psychological reactions symbolizing the greater communal upheaval. “The best among us have died,” one character observes. “And it is the cockroaches who survive.”

Apostol examines the protections granted by wealth and class in this satisfying volume, lyrically describing the prolonged effects that past events can have on future outcomes, targeting situations where truth and guilt are as crippling as any bullet.

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