Monthly Archives: September 2022

Sunday Review: The Reading by Barbara Monier

This is a novel about taking stock of one’s life—and perhaps finding the courage to jettison our defense mechanisms. Esmé, a writer in her sixties, is experiencing a prolonged creative paralysis. Instead of working on a new novel, she’s put off dealing with her writer’s block by continuing to give public readings of her last published work. Then one night someone from her past shows up in the audience, and the unexpected encounter propels her into reviewing both the childhood loss that scarred her and her first year of college, which she views as the worst year of her life. The two events have combined to turn her into a defensive person who deliberately avoids both memory and commitment.

Her voyage of reminiscence occurs at the same time that she faces an upheaval to her current life as major as her long-ago enrollment at a strange university in an alien part of the country. Her lover, Gino, has asked her to live with him, a move that will force her to leave the carefully constructed routine and cocoon that have surrounded and cushioned her for decades. Esmé makes the physical move, but can she risk the psychological and emotional shifts that will be necessary to commit herself to Gino? Or will she once again retreat?

Esmé is a sharply drawn character who makes mordant observants about the world and records her experiences in memorable detail—in sentences such as this one about a childhood visit to Pittsburgh: “The Sound of Music on a screen so immense that I felt pressed back in my seat by a barrage of pictures and sounds—I had nightmares about the Baroness’ nostrils and the way the peals of thunder rattled inside of my chest.”

The COVID-19 pandemic makes its appearance, but instead of dominating the narrative, it works on Esmé as it did on so many of us—as a catalyst toward reevaluating our lives. I found myself rooting for Esmé the entire novel, and the ending felt satisfying without being too tidy or forced.

The publication date for The Reading is September 27, but the Kindle version is available for preorder on Amazon, and the paperback can be preordered at Amika Press.

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Filed under Book Reviews, contemporary fiction, Twentieth century

Sunday Review: Fiction about Argentina’s Dirty War

For those who don’t know the history of the Dirty War, I am going to begin with some background. (If you already know, skip to the fifth paragraph.) From 1974 to 1983, Argentina conducted a Dirty War that consisted of state terrorism against its citizens. The government hunted down political dissidents, leftist guerillas, socialists—and any students, intellectuals, and activists the junta feared might become threats. 

People were snatched from school, work, home, the street. They were tortured for information and for punishment. They were beaten, shot, and buried in mass graves. They were drugged and thrown from airplanes, still alive, over open water. Even today, they are known as los desaparecidos, the disappeared. Pregnant women who were taken were held until they gave birth and then disposed of; their children were given to government officials or military officers who wanted to adopt. 

An estimated 30,000 Argentinians were disappeared, and an estimated 500 babies were stolen. Many of the grieving families still have no answers. Many of the perpetrators of these crimes against humanity were pardoned. Not until the 2000s did the Argentine government revoke the amnesty laws and begin prosecution. 

Because of my work on world history textbooks, I’ve known about the Dirty War for decades, but not until recently did it occur to me to read fiction about it. 

In the last two weeks, I have listened to audiobooks of two of them: On a Night of a Thousand Stars by Andrea Yaryura Clark and Perla by Carolina de Robertis. 

Purely by accident, I chose books that have several plot points and themes in common. Both have main characters who are young women, born during the Dirty War and raised in families that are part of the Argentinian elite. Both Paloma and Perla begin knowing little about their country’s terrible past. Both find romantic partners who help them learn the shocking history their parents hid from them—and their families’ own roles in the Dirty War. 

And yet, the two books are also quite different. On a Night of a Thousand Stars is the more straightforward narrative. It’s a dual timeline novel. One story focuses on Valentina, a young woman who attends college and then begins working as an architect during the opening years of the government campaign of terror. The other story, set twenty years later, focuses on Paloma, a young woman who is raised by Argentinian expats in New York City. Because her knowledge of Argentina has been gleaned mostly from visits to her grandfather, she starts out understanding little about the Dirty War, but she makes some discoveries that motivate her to find out what if any role her father played in combatting the oppression. Paloma’s father, who was once Valentina’s lover, is the link between the two time periods. 

Perla, on the other hand, has elements of magical realism, which felt entirely appropriate for the South American setting. The main character is the daughter of a naval officer, which is a huge red flag to the knowledgeable reader that her family has dark secrets to hide. Perla’s lover, an investigative journalist, nudges her to question her parents, but she can’t—and her inner conflict causes her to break up with him. Then, while her parents are away, she is visited by a mysterious man, who smells of rotting debris on a beach and who constantly sheds water on the parlor floor. This uncanny intruder is the catalyst that helps Perla intuit her past. 

I enjoyed both novels. My personal favorite was Perla, which was more literary and, for me, better conveyed the tragedy of Argentina’s past. But for readers who don’t enjoy magical realism, I can recommend On a Night of a Thousand Stars without hesitation. 

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Filed under Book Reviews, contemporary fiction, Historical fiction, Twentieth century