Elena Knows, by Claudia Piñeiro (translated by Frances Riddle), tells the story of an epic journey that takes place over the course of one day. The journey recounted is epic not in scope but in effort expended. The titular protagonist, from whose point of view the tale is told, is an elderly woman suffering from advanced Parkinson’s. Her ability to move her limbs relies on the careful timing of medication.
Opening in the morning, as Elena takes her second pill, the difficulties she faces doing a supposedly simple task such as putting one foot in front of the other are laid bare. She is sitting in her kitchen waiting for the prescribed chemicals to take effect that she may walk to the local train station, five blocks away. She must catch the ten o’clock train if she is to reach her destination.
“Today’s the day she’s going to play her last card, to try to find out who killed her daughter, to talk to the only person in the world who she thinks she can convince to help her. Because of a long-ago debt, something almost forgotten.”
Elena’s daughter, Rita, was found hanging from the church belfry. Investigators concluded she committed suicide. Elena knows this can’t be how she died as, on the day in question, it was raining. Rita harboured a fear of lightning and refused to attend church on such days after she learned of its lightning rod. Elena believes she knew her daughter better than anyone else.
Mother and daughter had a tempestuous relationship.
“They fought as if each word thrown out were the crack of a whip, leather in motion, one of them lashed out, then the other. Blistering the rival’s body with words. Neither let on that she was hurt.”
Nevertheless, now that Rita is dead Elena is grieving in her own way. Despite the many difficulties she faces, Elena mostly eschews any help offered, especially by her daughter’s boyfriend, a man Elena despises, appearing to resent that they had a relationship.
“They were two hopeless creatures, two losers in love, or not even, two lonely people who had never even entered the game, who had contented themselves with watching from the stands. As far as Elena was concerned, it would’ve been more dignified at that point for her daughter to abstain from playing altogether.”
After Elena completes the train journey she must travel a further distance to reach a house she has been to only once before, twenty years ago. She remembers directions and a front door but does not have an address. She must then confront Isabel, who lives there, and call in her debt. To continue to function Elena will need to take her third pill on the way.
Throughout the arduous journey, Elena remembers episodes with her daughter, including how disgusted Rita became by her mother’s failing body. There is no shying from detail in the depictions of a Parkinson’s sufferer. As well as difficulty controlling movement, Elena is now permanently stooped. She cannot cut her thickened toenails or remove her dentures. She leaks urine and cannot wipe herself after using the toilet. She constantly drools, including into her food, turning it to paste before she can eat it. Rita was her carer and didn’t hide how the personal tasks she was forced to carry out sickened her, as did the way her mother smelled and looked.
The denouement provides a change of pace after what was a poignant if challenging reveal of the mother-daughter relationship. It asks questions about the ownership an individual can have over their body given the effects of such issues as: illness, duty, domestic abuse. The determination Elena displays in travelling across Buenos Aires played out differently when Rita was younger. Rita herself had a lasting impact on Isabel. Their stories provide a shocking reminder of treatment women are expected to accept from those they look to for care or support, even when well intentioned.
The writing is taut and affecting, with a depth that develops slowly but lingers beyond the final page. In the Afterword, Fiona Mackintosh adds context – how the culture in Argentina, including the dogmas of the Catholic church, loom large and resist change.
I could not warm to Elena, especially when considering how she treated Rita – a doctor’s appointment is particularly traumatic. Even so, the depiction of age and infirmity cannot fail to raise pity – and fear for their own future – in any reader.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Charco Press.