Kawika Guillermo, All Flowers Bloom, Westphalia Press, 2020. 356 pgs.
What can a love story become in the middle of a global pandemic? Eerily pertinent, if All Flowers Bloom is the story in question.
In Kawika Guillermo’s new novel, his protagonist has transcended human life. 871 is a passenger on the cruise that awaits a few lucky souls in the afterlife. The night before they and their soul mate, S, take the tea that erases their memories, 871 tasks themselves with recording every version of life that has led them to this moment.
Almost every chapter in Bloom features these lovers in different bodies, periods, roles. The thread that binds the entire novel together is 871 and S’ love. What Guillermo achieves by placing his characters in new bodies occupying new spaces chapter after chapter is a removal of the usual trappings of a conflict between star-crossed lovers.
It is not who, what or where they are that drives a wedge between 871 and S. It is the very morality of a supposedly undying, eternal love itself.
“I can change her!” 871 declares in one chapter (they are a woman in this one). “She is so close now, I almost have her—you cannot stop me!”
After enough transformations, it becomes clear that this has been 871’s goal: to bring S onboard the eternal ship so that they may literally cruise through the rest of life together. But S’ soul is recalcitrant; in every life, after every death, 871 returns alone. S does not willingly cross over.
Like all of Guillermo’s characters, 871 is no usual hero. They are at times difficult to love, a challenge to root for. As a character, 871 does not grow on readers so much as confronts them. Every forward step they take to claim S feels accusatory. How much is too much? How far is too far?
“Love—it moves mountains!” 871 says, but readers—who have been battered by the cycle of life after life in which S turns away from 871 when it matters most—are forced to ask: does it?
In the confines of my apartment, forced to remain there to avoid crowds buzzed on paranoia and all smelling thickly of hand-sanitizer, Guillermo’s prose cuts deep but rings true. I read Bloom with occasional pauses to watch my newsfeed toss around the phrase “new normal” as if it has always existed in our everyday vernacular.
What a contradiction! We are living in a reality that is both new and normal. We exist in the always changing that is apparently par for the course.
Every now and then, I receive messages from friends asking how I’m faring. After some mutual commiseration, one of us inevitably promises an outing of some sort “when all of this blows over.”
Immersed in 871’s love story, the parallels between their insistence on an enduring love and my persistence that a global pandemic can somehow “blow over” becomes obvious.
It is this dogged, incredibly human stubbornness to cling onto something in the hopes that it remains permanent that Guillermo pierces in his novel. 871 finds peace not when S finally joins them on the cruise, but when they wipe their memories clean of each other.
It is only through rebirth that 871 and S’ love for one another becomes true once again.
In a blog post describing the writing of this novel, Guillermo writes: “rebirth is not a metaphor. It is the past never being past. It is the multitude of worlds within us.”
All Flowers Bloom is a story about layers. It’s about the souls of two lovers who were, are and could be. The timeliness of Guillermo’s novel is a happy coincidence, but an effective one all the same. Like me, it has undergone a rebirth of its own. Held in the hands of readers existing in a reality rife with political upheaval and a global pandemic, All Flowers Bloom is reborn into something new and crucial.
Editors’ note: Read Kawika Guillermo’s exclusive essay on writing All Flowers Bloom here.
Kayla Cadenas is a writer, artist, and teacher based in Hong Kong. She completed her undergraduate degree in English Literature from the Ateneo de Manila University.