Though Manuela Sáenz lies buried in an unmarked grave in Peru, her efforts on behalf of South America's liberation from Spain have not been forgotten. And neither has her devotion to the Latin American hero Simón Bolívar, with whom she had a love affair from the time of their meeting until his death in 1830.
This legendary couple and the battlegrounds on which their tumultuous relationship unfolded are masterfully imagined in Jaime Manrique's page-turning novel "Our Lives Are the Rivers".
"With all my wealth, I would devise my own future," claims Manuela, a woman of privilege bitterly attained after growing up an illegitimate daughter of a Spanish businessman.
Her father marries her off to one of his associates, and Manuela rebels by raising funds for the patriot armies that later overthrow the Spanish monarchy in Peru.
As a lifelong witness to the injustices against the criollos (South American descendants of Spaniards), Manuela becomes invested in the revolutionary furor that is headed by the dashing Bolívar, whom she enamors with both her beauty and her commitment to "the only cause worth fighting for."
What follows is an impassioned account of an adulterous affair, the vanity of "the first lady of Gran Colombia," and the ardent obligation that takes its toll on the couple's emotional health.
Bolívar eventually reveals his unflattering temperament; Manuela, her nationalistic fanaticism as she orders the death of a young traitor before his mother, confirming the truth that "no one in the epic of independence could claim not to have blood on their hands."
Fleshing out this tale of a heroine in the making are Jonatás and Natán, Manuela's two slaves and companions in arms, who offer their perspectives, critical of the war-torn 1800s that neglected the rights of the indigenous people and of the women's fellow Africans. And through their eyes, though they loved Manuela, it was she who had sole control over their freedom, not the revolution.
Through this complex narrative, Manrique succeeds in creating a memorable and human portrait of a woman so embedded in the upheaval that she must ask herself, "Had I fallen in love with a man whose true mistress was war?" And under the author's skillful guidance, the romantic banter and lovers' quarrels between Sáenz and Bolívar never slip into vitriol, and the accuracy of historic events and timelines is never compromised.
You can find the review here