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EMPTY HOUSES (Daunt Books, £9.99), Mexican writer Brenda Navarro’s first novel, is the devastating story of a mother who loses her small child in a playground somewhere in Mexico and her relentless search to find him.
It is also the story of a working-class woman who has kidnapped the child in order to fulfil her maternal desires and, fittingly, the chapters begin with epigraphs from the work of Polish poet Wisława Szymborska that set the tone for what it is yet to come.
The narrative alternates between the harrowing stories of these two desperate woman as they try to make sense of motherhood, mental and physical abuse and trauma in a novel that questions maternal instincts in patriarchies and the place of women in modern society.
Exploring ambivalent positions on adoption and motherhood, Empty Houses is a sharp social criticism of class and racial issues in today’s Mexico, seen from the perspective of these two female characters confronting their own fears and desires.
Their bodies are portrayed as empty houses, uninhabited spaces ravaged by years of social and familial violence as well as by daily suffering. “My body was a container,” one of the protagonists reveals, “a kind of empty courtyard reverberating with distant city sounds. The empty house, structurally sound but never lived in, bleak.”
Navarro is a brave new voice in Mexican literature and her debut novel a devastating portrayal of Latin American women, their desires, regrets and social pressures in motherhood. Prepare to be shocked.
Being a mother is also a major theme in Elena Knows (Charco Press, £9.99) by Argentinean writer Claudia Pineiro.
Beautifully translated by Frances Riddle, the book tells the story of the elderly Elena, who suffers from advanced Parkinson’s disease, her daughter and caregiver Rita and the mysterious Isabel.
The novel begins with Elena in search of answers — Rita has been found dead in a local church she used to attend. The police have concluded that it was suicide and, although the investigation has been closed, Elena is not convinced.
Interspersed with flashbacks from Elena’s past and the difficult journey she takes across the suburbs of Buenos Aires, the novel deals with the mother-daughter relationship, the myths and realities of motherhood, the right of women to decide on what they do with their own and others' bodies and with the increasing challenges of an ill and ageing body.
Elena becomes the detective-heroine of the story, uncovering an unexpected truth that will confront the reader with their perceptions of social norms, as well as ethical and religious questions.
It is no surprise that the novel was written by one of the most prominent and committed activists campaigning for the legalisation of abortion in Argentina, as well as for the #NiUnaMenos movement against fermicide.
In the illuminating prologue we learn that, for Pineiro, “rather than what Elena knows, the key to this intensely moving novel is what Elena doesn’t know.”
A remarkable story that deals head-on with some of the most pressing issues in today’s Argentina.
The Nicaraguan-Costa Rican writer Lester Gomez Medina, a fellow of the collective Invisible Presence of young Latinx writers in Britain, is the author of The Riddle of the Cashew (Exiled Writers Ink, £5.)
The pamphlet is published by Exiled Writers Ink and is the culmination of a two-year mentorship scheme run by the organisation, pairing exiled poets with established writers. The book is filled with carefully crafted poems that tell the story of Gomez Medina, his upbringing in Nicaragua before his relocation to Costa Rica with his family, and his final move to England.
It is a moving collection, with lyrical and narrative poems full of powerful images, as in Mercedita Under the Rain of 1979, where the author writes about her young aunt during the Nicaraguan Revolution that ousted the Somoza dictatorship of 1978-1990:
“One night Mercedita felt the cold,/first it came through her legs/she said she couldn’t feel them./The rain clouded her vision./Mercedita heard the sky thunder,/she heard a plane passing by,/the rain reverberated over the houses/like bombs from airplanes, like rifles,/bullets bouncing off the roof/like water scurrying from houses/and people got wet,/got wet, Mercedita, like you.”
A poignant book of poems from a promising Latinx voice.
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