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The Bullet Swallower by Elizabeth Gonzalez James
Literary fiction

The Bullet Swallower

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by Elizabeth Gonzalez James

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Quick take

Hold on to your hat, cowboy, the bullets whiz freely and magic hides within everything in this epic family border saga.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_MultipleNarrators

    Multiple viewpoints

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_NonLinear

    Nonlinear timeline

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Magical

    Magical

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_GraphicViolence

    Graphic violence

Synopsis

In 1895, Antonio Sonoro is the latest in a long line of ruthless men. He’s good with his gun and is drawn to trouble but he’s also out of money and out of options. A drought has ravaged the town of Dorado, Mexico, where he lives with his wife and children, and so when he hears about a train laden with gold and other treasures, he sets off for Houston to rob it—with his younger brother Hugo in tow. But when the heist goes awry and Hugo is killed by the Texas Rangers, Antonio finds himself launched into a quest for revenge that endangers not only his life and his family, but his eternal soul.

In 1964, Jaime Sonoro is Mexico’s most renowned actor and singer. But his comfortable life is disrupted when he discovers a book that purports to tell the entire history of his family beginning with Cain and Abel. In its ancient pages, Jaime learns about the multitude of horrific crimes committed by his ancestors. And when the same mysterious figure from Antonio’s timeline shows up in Mexico City, Jaime realizes that he may be the one who has to pay for his ancestors’ crimes, unless he can discover the true story of his grandfather Antonio, the legendary bandido El Tragabalas, The Bullet Swallower.

A family saga that’s epic in scope and magical in its blood, and based loosely on the author’s own great-grandfather, The Bullet Swallower tackles border politics, intergenerational trauma, and the legacies of racism and colonialism in a lush setting and stunning prose that asks who pays for the sins of our ancestors, and whether it is possible to be better than our forebears.

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The Bullet Swallower

PROLOGUE

DORADO, MEXICO—EARLY 1800S

Alferez Antonio Sonoro was born with gold in his eyes. The gold was sharp and it stung him so that he blinked uncontrollably and always carried a vial of salted water in his pocket. Of the four Sonoro brothers he was the only one thus signified, and his parents regarded it a blessing, incontestable proof of divine favor. Though he was the youngest, the servants carved his portion of meat first, even before his father’s. His mother often knelt before him at night, delivering her prayers directly to her child, rather than to God.

The Sonoros lived in Dorado, a mining town established by their silk-clad forebears in the arid brushland fronting what the Texans called the Rio Grande, but which the Mexicans gave the more descriptive name Río Bravo del Norte. A flock of clay-colored buildings studded with wooden vigas and decorated with dahlias drowsing in white pots, Dorado sat quiet and erect across the water from the wilds of the province of Texas, a four-day journey upstream from where the river spooled emerald into the briny Gulf. Dorado, meaning “golden,” was both a wish and a command—the earth there was split apart by the Sonoros and her bounty revealed. And they took lustily.

The pain in his eyes made Alferez Antonio unsympathetic. If I can stand it, he thought, anyone can withstand anything. And most people believed he’d been born with gold in his loins as well for he lusted after more, more than he could spend, more than he could hold, more than could ever be dragged by the cartful from the belly of the earth.

When Alferez Antonio stood in the sunlight, the gold gleamed white and it was impossible for anyone to address him without averting their own gaze. Even his father, abandoning all pretense that he was master of his child, took to doffing his hat and holding it at his chest and looking at the ground one day when his teenage son stood at the entrance to the mother lode and demanded to know why only grown men worked in the mine.

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Why I love it

The first time I read Gabriel García Márquez in the eighth grade he completely changed the way I think about language—his sentences had magic and played by their own rules! So when I saw that The Bullet Swallower was being compared to García Márquez, I was a little skeptical. But when I began reading this impressive, genre-defying epic, I happily discovered it is worthy of the comparison.

The Bullet Swallower takes us from the late 1800s to the 1960s, across Mexico and Texas, following the no-holds-barred vigilante Antonio Sonoro and his more law-abiding grandson Jaime. After a train heist turns deadly and Antonio’s brother Hugo is killed, he will stop at nothing to avenge his death. 70 years in the future, grandson Jaime feels the reverberations of Antonio’s violence, and a haunting figure from the past convinces him that he’s the only person who can atone for his family’s sins.

Reading this book is a visceral experience; you can feel the crunch of gravel under your feet, the blazing hot sun beating down, the sand and silt and dirt coating your whole body as you journey with Antonio across the desert. The Bullet Swallower blends the swagger and stakes of a western, the well-researched details of a historical novel, and a dash of magical realism into something beautifully indescribable and wholly unique. If you’re looking for a transportive read, this is it.

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Member ratings (2,450)

  • Caitlin M.

    Spring Hill, FL

    There’s so many underlying lessons to be learned from this book. Anything god pours into you as soon as you pour into others and we aren’t responsible for our ancestors sins. Definitely worth reading.

  • Maggie S.

    Topeka , KS

    I was hooked from the very first page! The author said she was going for “magical realism western” & she nailed it! An adventurous read that explores deep themes about family, revenge, good and evil.

  • Marlene S.

    Ripley, TN

    Branched out for me with this choice, and I really loved it. Well written and interesting until the very last page. You can’t help but root for Antonio throughout the entire book.Glad I took a chance!

  • Ashley P.

    Lovettsville , VA

    Fast paced and immersive alternating timeframes set in Mexico and Texas. This was as much character driven as it was plot driven. More than a mere western has class, racism, bonds across generations.

  • Brielyn S.

    Delmar, NY

    This story was magical & devastating. It is much darker & more violent than what I typically read, but it was engrossing. I’m so glad I was able to glimpse into this world, now onto something light.

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