I’ll admit that I was immediately intrigued by the jacket of PEN/Hemingway Award–winning author Brando Skyhorse’s My Name Is Iris. It’s not your typical dystopian novel cover—while the separated hands (one pale, the other blending in with the terracotta brick wall) convey distance and the falling rose petals intimate a sense that time is almost up, there is a beauty and delicacy in the presentation of the rose, the light blue sky, and the gold ribbon. I looked at this cover and saw both elegance and pain, a sort of oxymoron that had me thinking, “this book will be good, gripping.”
And it was. The voice and the characters in this powerful novel had my mind spinning, questioning how real and accessible freedom really is, and constantly reevaluating the notion of selfhood and the ways a person can (or can’t) choose who they become.
Iris, born Inés, is a second-generation Mexican-American woman living close to the Mexico–United States border with her daughter, Mel. She has spent most of her life trying to blend into a community that indiscreetly favors white people—she’s changed her name (after a grade-school teacher had difficulty with the pronunciation), settled into a corporate job, and recently moved into a nice neighborhood with an HOA. It is clear from the beginning of the book that Iris doesn’t want to be pigeon-holed by her heritage or the color of her skin, and she will go to extreme lengths to make sure her daughter isn’t either. (Mel’s father, who much to his disappointment recently separated from Iris, is also a second-generation Mexican-American.)
Iris has always lived in fear of discrimination. Her parents, themselves immigrants from Mexico, made sure to instill in her at an early age the value of citizenship—one thing that can’t be taken away. But what if citizenship isn’t enough anymore? With the use of magical realism and unnerving futuristic features, Brando Skyhorse asks readers to consider exactly how much is really free in America and to what lengths a person will go to achieve their own freedom (and that of their loved ones). Shortly after Iris and Mel move into a beautiful new neighborhood, Iris notices something obscure: there’s a wall in her front yard. Stranger yet is the fact that the wall appears to be growing and changing day by day. Strangest and most isolating of all, only Iris and Mel can see this threatening fortress that casts a dark shadow over their home. In the meantime, a new technological development is unfolding at a shockingly rapid rate: government-issued bands that can track a person’s location and grant them access to certain “privileges” (eating out, grocery shopping, having a job) are popping up on wrists everywhere. The catch? Immigrants and the children of immigrants don’t qualify for bands.
Strangely, it was the book’s magical realism that had me realizing that maybe our world isn’t all that far from being like Iris’s. Sure, there aren’t breathing, growing walls following people whose parents weren’t born in the United States, but there is a partially built border wall separating the United States and Mexico (one that some people pretend doesn’t exist). Maybe scenes and characters from our past aren’t literally reappearing, but the racial violence occurring in our nation today sadly echoes generations and generations of violence and discrimination.
Skyhorse does an incredible job implementing fantastical elements to impart upon the reader a visceral understanding of the isolation and desperation Iris must be experiencing. While I found myself empathizing with Iris at times, I also felt confusion and sometimes anger at the way she chose to handle seemingly hopeless situations. No matter what each individual reader’s situation may be, most will find—at one point or another—that elements of this novel hit close to home. And while this may be uncomfortable, it’s also part of what makes this such a valuable book—Skyhorse excels at imparting a story that is at once creative, cautionary, and jarringly familiar.