In Havana Twist, Jansson begins by telling her readers that she would love a mother who annoyed her with family anecdotes or by telling her how to raise tulips. Jansson instead had to go on a trip through the United States, Mexico, and Cuba to find her activist mom after the elder Jansson went on a political expedition to Cuba and failed to return with her group.
After learning about the disappearance of her mother, Jansson heads to Cuba, despite her desires. She has to pretend to be part of a tourist group and fly through Mexico City so that American customs does not find out about the trip. When Jansson arrives, she is soon befriended by Cindy and Dennis, who tell her that are Associated Press journalists, and by Ernesto, a young Cuban boy who is not what he seems.
Jansson uses these people to help her navigate the confusing waters of Cuba, using the time to comment on the state of the communist nation and its people. Matera often uses the book as a political commentary, pointing out the ills of Cuban communism and praising the gusanos, defectors who left Cuba for the United States. The commentary at times takes away from the book, making it seem that the purpose Matera had in mind when writing the book was to dissuade the legions of Americans who may be considering a summer vacation in Havana.
While in Cuba, Jansson finds herself at odds with the government, which is watching her every move. Eventually Jansson finds herself kicked out of the communist haven and sent back to Mexico City. Jansson connects with the newspaper where Cindy and Dennis worked and ends up involved in an international conspiracy involving love, hate, and human smuggling.
The effort to find her mother is not as pleasant or as simple as Jansson had hoped it would be. She ends up going back to her home in Santa Cruz after having explained the entire situation to several branches of the United States government and to her old flame, who happens to be a detective. Jansson spends the next six months pining away the hours, believing that her mother is dead, until her ex comes up with a plan.
The two travel back to Mexico and convince Martin Marules, the newspaper editor, to get them back into Cuba using his connections in the country. Marules does, and the two set out to find Mother once and for all. Once in Cuba, they are shuttled from place to place without being permitted to do any searching. In the end, they must leave Cuba empty-handed, but the two will not give up.
They continue staking out several places in Mexico City, including an apartment they have discovered is the headquarters for a motley crew of CIA agents. The book has more twists and turns than one may imagine, and Jansson and her comrades often get by on deus ex machina, the Greek phrase for God out of a box. In other words, the escapes sometimes are too narrow and too convenient to be believable. There are murders, double-crossing, and just plain lies in this book, which attempts too much in one short novel. Havana Twist is, however, a good story, but it may warrant a second read to keep everyone straight and to figure out how everyone fits together in the end.
Still the book provides an interesting read. Much of the history and the information about Cuba is accurate and gives one interpretation of the current state of affairs there. It may be surprising to know what one could expect to see in Cuba on a friendly little visit, but the book is not likely to convince anyone that visiting there would be a good idea.
By Julia Mercer