Oh. My. Goodness. I started reading this book as a library book, got about 50 pages in, realized it was gorgeous and perfect and was going to be a favorite that I want on my shelves, and promptly bought it. I finished reading my very own copy. It ended just as wonderfully as it started.
“It seemed, at times, that this was the only way the world would be remade as the heroes had dreamed: one woman holds another woman, and she in turn lifts the world.”
Cantoras tells the story of five women living under an authoritarian military regime in 1970-80s Uruguay: Romina, Flaca, Anita “La Venus,” Paz, and Malena. These five “cantoras,” as they refer to themselves and other women who love women, manage to find each other in the midst of fear and oppression in the capital city of Montevideo. They manage to carve out a small, shared, safe space on the isolated coastal town Cabo Polonio. Over the twenty years of this novel, they each return to Cabo Polonio, all together, alone and in smaller groups – their refuge, a place where they can be their authentic selves. And as readers, we follow their journeys together and separately through the years as they navigate life and work to survive their traumas and challenges.
I cannot tell you how beautiful this story was. I actually don’t know if I have the words to do it justice. The writing, from start to finish, was breathtaking, sumptuous, stunning. At only about 10 pages in I wrote “holy shit, this writing is writing to savor” in my notes and it remains perhaps the truest note I’ve ever taken while reading. And in fact, reading this took me much longer than a book this length normally would, but it was completely purposeful. I think the last book I read this slowly, in order to really appreciate every lush sentence, was Circe (Madeleine Miller), and it was another favorite of mine. Anyways, I think you get the idea. Basically, the writing is spectacular.
And it’s not just the writing that makes this book amazing. This is historical fiction about a time and place that I have never read about before (that I can remember) and know very little about: Uruguay during its late 20th century dictatorship. I love the way reading opens my eyes, teaches me…and like all similar situations (at least for me), I spend quite a bit of time after finishing researching more, in a nonfiction lens, about Uruguay during this time. It’s so sad that this kind of recent history is so overlooked and under-known, especially here in the US, as we exist in fairly close proximity to South America. And really, looking at the recent history of much of South America, there must be so many stories like the ones written here, as this was a turbulent time for the area, as far as governance and the state violence against the people. Really all I knew about before this book was Argentina and the Desaparecidos (which happened in the same time frame, so why are they the only country I know about?). Regardless, this was such an educational read on that front. Not only factually/informationally, but in feeling as well. De Robertis does a phenomenal job (and we’re back to her writing again, people!) conveying the minute-to-minute terror and tension and overall crushing anxiety and futility that people lived with on a daily basis during this time. Every page held such contradictions – with our five women doing everything they can to live fully and authentically and fight the system, yet simultaneously worried about backlash (being “found out,” disappearing, reprisals against their family and loved ones) and the general ever-present threat of “The Process” at every moment. It’s heartbreaking and hopeful in equal measure, and portrayed to perfection.
But it’s more than that too. In addition to the incredible writing and historical environment/setting, there are also the five cantoras themselves. De Robertis tells their individual backgrounds along with their current lives and relationships in a juxtaposition that is paced and delivered on point. Each of the five, although they take very different paths through life and make very different choices that lead them (at times) far from the others, are told with equal detail and “screen-time” to create fully dimensional and compelling characters. Also, each of them provides a chance for the reader to see a different aspect of the oppression and suspicion queer women faced during this time period under both the regime and the general patriarchy. With Romina, we get to see the affects, both first hand and of a family member, of being imprisoned by The Process. (As a side note here, the exploration of Romina’s PTSD and her guilt about it, in proportion to other’s suffering, was affecting and hard to read, but so important.) With “La Venus,” we see the struggle to fit society’s standards in combination with how to compromise personal feelings that are at odds (loving women versus wanting to be a mother). With Flaca (and to some extent with Romina), we see a strong personality, willing to live her life for herself, and yet also shouldering all the fear and responsibility for those she loves who might suffer as a result. With Paz, we see a young girl who has always “known” what she was, and just wants a place to fit in and be that person, making her own way in the world and trying to be successful and seen in that. (Side note here, the exploration of how Paz “finds out” about herself, and her own pride in that experience versus the groups’ reaction to how wrong/how taken advantage of she was, was poignant and complex.) And last, with Malena we see the toll that silence takes – the trauma she suffered at the hands of so many people and the regime’s/society’s realities that make it impossible to speak about it – it’s the slowest story to unfold, and perhaps one of the saddest, as far as how far being a silenced victim pushed her. And all together, the way they are both there for each other and, at times, let each other down in pursuit of saving themselves, is one of the most moving and intricate portraits of a group of people that I’ve ever read.
In the afterward, the De Robertis writes the following: “In telling these stories that are largely absent from formal histories or from the great noise of mainstream culture, I never forget that there are thousands if not millions of people whose names we may never learn, whose names are lost in time, who made our contemporary lives possible through acts of extraordinary courage. Their stories have all too often gone unrecorded, but I am here today, and able to speak, because of them.” I cannot think of any more accurate or heartfelt praise to give this book than to say that in these pages, at least for me, De Robertis gave voice to some of those absent stories/persons. This novel was an exquisite tribute to the pain and struggle and love and hope of the many lives the five women in this story represent. I absolutely loved this novel and will be recommending it to literally everyone!
And now, please enjoy this ridiculous number of quotes/passages that I marked while reading and cannot not share with you all:
“The first time – which would become legend among them – they entered in darkness. Night enfolded the sand dunes. Stars clamored around a meager slice of moon.” (These opening lines though!)
“Perhaps, she thought, this is all that life can give us, all it can give me, the most voluptuous gift it will ever offer. A day. A day in which the boundaries of you can expand to fit the sky, to fit the sky inside yourself, and no city streets no kidnap fears no familial duties can hem you in, shrink you down, curl you tight inside. She was walking over grass, toward a sloping path. She was draped in sunlight. She was free, breathing, stripped of pretense, untethered from the lies of everyday survival. She was walking with a friend and her lover. Their lust crackled in the air, made it shimmer, and even though it wasn’t hers, it flushed her with a kind of happiness. They too were untethered. They too were real. How long had she had it in her, this hunger to expand, this need for space? This need to breathe all the way to the bottom of her lungs.”
“Aching flames unleashed, spilled out into another body. The vigor of desire. The heave and stab of it. Like eating the ocean and still wanting more. Dissolving into ash, and then, when your body returns, when the room returns, she is still there, woman, girl, gazing at you with animal eyes. All of it shrouded in a shawl of quiet. They were perfect together, or, more accurately, together they shaped perfection out of nothing and cradled it in their arms.”
“What if so much living made you dangerous?”
“Happiness. Wholeness. A secret way to be a woman. A way that blasted things apart, that melted the map of reality. Two women in love.”
“Scared to leave. Scared to stay. She hovered in the space between fears.”
“Maybe crazy and impossible are two different things.”
“…both of them could fill you up with beautiful, get you drunk on it, unhinge you from the ugliness that pervaded the world and lift you out of it to soaring heights where you forgot that you were in fact still mortal in a broken world.”
“The essence of dictatorship, she thought. On the bus, on the street, at home, no matter where you are or how ordinary you seem, you’re in a cage.”
“She sat down at the center of the floor. Took a breath. The scent of mold of comfort. Anything can be a comfort if it smells like home.”
“There were things about her they’d never full see. That’s how it was. How the world was. Even when loved, you were never fully seen.”
“Why did life put so much inside a woman and then keep her confined to smallness?”
“Safe is never given. Safe is what you make with your own hands.”
“…the path into the forbidden was in fact wide open right in front of you and [that] stepping onto it could be a kind of rightness, a vitality more powerful than fear.”
“Suffering has no measure. There are no scales to weigh it. There is only sorrow after sorrow.”
“She should have known better. Than to think. That she could not be. What she was.”
“She was high on a jagged outcropping, and waves crashed roughly below. They seemed otherworldly in the moonlight, rising ferociously, over and over, colliding against the rocks. Without shame. Without tiring. Without cease. Water could break and split from itself and in moments return to wholeness. Or rip away and never return.”
“Artists don’t give up on trying to render things just because rendering them is impossible.”
“The world family coiled between and around them like some translucent dragon, a glowing magical creature of their own making.”