Another shoutout to The Reading Women Challenge 2021 for the “rush” to pick up this one. The “South American Author in Translation” prompt had a few contenders for it on my TBR list, but the cover for this one was the tipping factor. Plus the base concept is one that I was really interested in, as South American authors have a phenomenal tradition of writing in the dark-magical-realism realm.
“No blue was the same and no earth tasted alike. No child, sibling, mother, or friend was missed like another.”
Our unnamed narrator has a special skill – eating earth from areas where women and children have disappeared gives her visions about where they’ve gone or what happened to them. In a slum in Argentina, these visions are never anything but dark, terrible, hard to “watch.” When word gets out, Eartheater is pulled into a relationship with a local police officer and is overwhelmed by the requests for information from people missing loved ones.
This was such a fast read! I mean, it’s not a super long book, but the writing is also very sparse, in a poetic (in its rhythm) way, and it leant itself to quick page-turning. It was, in fact, the perfect style for this story: the no-frills, staccato style of the sentences contributed to the overall vibe really well. It communicates the terse interactions of the young woman at the center, the reluctant Eartheater (because how else could she be, with the horror of what she’s forced to experience first hand from all the requests after her skills), so well, adding a great literary atmospheric depth to the story. It’s also spot on for the age and outlook of the narrator – a young women living in poverty, having witnessed familial violence to the most extreme degree, and living in the aftermath of that, while still being, at base, still almost a child herself. With that, the translation was overall really solid – the note from the translator at the end, with commentary on the difficulty of translating some of the barrio-specific language, was fascinating. And I’m always so impressed with this type of literary translation. There was one word, in particular, that struck me weird every time I read it though. Every time the book mentioned the MC “scarfing” earth, I got kicked out of the flow for a minute. It is not a huge thing, but it did come up a lot, considering the premise, and I just never settled with it as the right word choice. But that’s a super personal thing and the rest was amazing, literarily.
I want to highlight here, if I haven’t enough already, how incredibly clever the earth-eating “visions” at the center of the story were. The idea that the earth can tell what happened on it, can give insight to the last moments of life or the current location of kidnapped women, is brilliant. And also, so completely creepy (like eating dirt is definitely some horror-leaning stuff, conceptually), which is in perfect parallel to the terrible dark realities that it’s giving insight into. This novel highlights, with unflinching yet mystical clarity, the ongoing prevalence of violence against women and femicide in South America; specifically the way that law enforcement and policy have abandoned poor communities to, essentially, just live with the violence and loss and grief and death and the “fend for yourself lawlessness” reality that those left behind, even and especially youth, live within.
Phew. Fast though this read may be, it is full-on heavy and gritty. And it does bring that perfect South American magical realism spirit, with an extra feminist bruja lens that I was completely here for. Unique and harrowing.
A few other quotes I noted while reading:
“I’d started noticing a special trait in people who were looking for someone, a mark near the eyes, the mouth, a mixture of pain, anger, strength, and expectation made flesh. A thing broken, possessed by the person who wasn’t coming back.”
“The world must be larger than I’d imagined for so many people to have disappeared in it.”
“It isn’t just love that makes the heart race, but music too.”