by Iosi Havilio
translated from Spanish by Beth Fowler
I got this book as part of my subscription to And Other Stories. I didn’t realise that it’s a sequel to Havilio’s first novel, Open Door, but I’m not sure how much that mattered. However, I guess that does mean that this review might contain spoilers to the first book (which I fully intend to go back and read now).
This novel follows a young mother who, suddenly widowed and forced off her husband’s farm, moves to Buenos Aires with her four-year-old son Simón. She finds work, housing and friends in a poor, dodgy corner of the city.
“It’s me who ends up carrying Simón most of the way, and if at first it feels like he’ll break my back, I adapt as we go and that annoying kick between the ribs becomes just another part of my body. Like everything, once the novelty has passed, things stop hurting or making you happy.”
The unnamed narrator floats through life, letting things happen to her, which was sometimes frustrating but totally believable. There are fleeting references to a lunatic asylum in her past, and she does show non-specific signs of some kind of mental illness – a loose hold on reality, an inability to say no to some really bad ideas, a surprising comfort with lying.
“I think about how each of us had to devise our truth in relation to the other, a comparison of before and after. And that’s the reason for all the affectations, the smiles, the embarrassment, the surprise, the And you? This is mad, and I promise. All those words.”
In some ways this is a story of survival. The narrator is doing what she can to get through life and parenthood. Though she’s new to the city, she is some ways ideally suited to this kind of life, though she is also the type of person most at risk from it.
Her vagueness isn’t just apparent in her narration, it’s also clear from the way her friends interact with her. Most of them take what they want from her silence, interpreting it the way that suits them best, but then other people (probably those who are best for her) struggle and fail to understand.
“I look into his eyes, sad, broken eyes like an orphaned, tortured cat’s, I don’t know what to say to him…I sympathise in silence, with my eyebrows, all the words of consolation that occur to me turn out to be impossible to articulate. He realises this and must feel a bit disappointed.”
I loved the opening of this novel, with the uncomfortable funeral and the final days at the farm. And I liked the rest of it, but I think I did ultimately find the narrator too vague and frustrating to love the book overall.
Published 2013 by And Other Stories.
Source: I subscribe to the publisher.