Book Review: Tender

tender

“I listen, patient as he talks and talks but out there on this frosty night the sordid race is still being run”

Tender is the third and final instalment in the author’s ‘involuntary trilogy’ which started with Die, My Love and Feebleminded. It is, once again, set in and around a remote home in rural France. The bucolic surrounds – cow pasture, woodland and vineyards – offer a stark contrast to the protagonist whose lusts and passions often veer into violence.

The story is narrated by a mother who is trying to raise her teenage son while barely controlling her desperate and carnal desires for her married lover – she grows frenzied when the man will not prioritise their affair as she demands. The boy regularly misses school – the pair have police records, coming under the radar of social services. The woman has vivid dreams that merge with her lived experiences. She struggles to contain her reactions when erotic appetites are not sated.

“this uncontainable fury across furrowed fields, groves of trees and every few miles a tantrum”

The mother’s behaviour is often reckless, sometimes cruel and regularly neglectful. She states a wish that she could keep her house in a better state, provide more regular food for her son and pay him more attention. Her days, though, pass at seemingly breakneck speed as she careers from one ill-thought action to another. There is a disturbing sexual tension at times in descriptions of filial interactions. It remained unclear to me what was being shared.

The son wishes to support his mother but struggles to keep up with her volatility. She tussles with the need to let go when he leaves her for time with his peers.

“They ride away, their exhaust pipes waking the families with him their new conscript. I stand up and walk through the house, still not dressed. I’m no more than the sound of an insect’s wing. Old age is a shipwreck.”

The woman tries to persuade her son to attend school then takes him off on a road trip that goes nowhere. The boy sides with his mother against her lover but is left on his own when it suits.

All of this is told in prose that sparks and burns with unsentimental candour. In many ways it is disjointed, yet this suits the recounted events unfolding through memory, action and regret. What comes across clearly is the fury and desperation of a beautiful woman who is libidinous yet inexorably aging. She may love her son but has needs of her own that she needs to assuage.

A short and powerful read that puts a labile woman front and centre – she is a mother but also herself. There may be discomfort in some of the attitudes expressed – towards immigrants, gypsies, illegals – but the raw honesty captures and pierces with its taut expression of emotions rarely confessed.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Charco Press.

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Book Review: Brickmakers

Brickmakers

Brickmakers, by Selva Almada (translated by Annie McDermott), is set in small town South America. It focuses on two families with patriarchs it is hard to like or empathise with. They become sworn enemies for reasons that appear to offer an outlet for self-entitled anger – a desire to provoke and enjoy the reaction – more than anything that makes more sense. The damage wreaked by their feud leads to tragedy in the next generation.

The story opens with two young men dying from stab wounds. As they lie in the mud by a fairground there are recollections from their past lives. The reader learns how their fathers and mothers met, why they married, how they treated each other and their children. The lives portrayed are of men wanting sex without responsibility, money without having to settle down to steady work. The women appear to accept this shiftlessness in their menfolk. Having read the author’s previous work, Dead Girls, I pondered if this was part of the culture of the area. The fathers beat their children yet expect loyalty. The mothers try to hold the family together without expecting much material help.

Fun for the young people is found around bars and dance halls with alcohol and sex a feature from a young age. The fecklessness of the young men appears to be expected although they somehow regard themselves as better, more deserving. There is cruelty amongst rival peers for amusement, a goading for momentary and selfish pleasure.

The reader knows from the start how the story will end. What is being told is how two young men ended up in this situation. It is presented as a common outcome given where and how they live. The violence depicted is not confined to people. Shocking animal cruelty, while not surprising, was challenging to consider.

The tale unfolds in short chapters. The prose is taut and engaging despite my dislike of the protagonists across both generations. While it was hard to feel sympathy given how the men act, the setting evoked demonstrates how limited life can be for those born in this place who choose to stay.

Although somewhat depressing, the author skilfully draws the reader in to lives riven by emotional and physical violence, alongside a lack of wider ambition. She offers a window into a culture I found disturbing by being deemed acceptable by so many.

An impressive but not entirely enjoyable read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Charco Press.

Book Review: Dead Girls

Dead Girls, by Selva Almada (translated by Annie McDermott), investigates the unresolved murders of young women in the author’s home country – Argentina. Focusing on three girls murdered in the early 1980s, it is shocking although, sadly, unsurprising.

“Being a woman meant being prey.”

The author interviewed family and friends of the deceased, adding in her own experiences of growing up in a provincial town at a time when even phones in homes were rare. With few broadcast TV channels, news was mostly local. The author found this suffocating. Nevertheless, she felt mostly safe. The society she lived in chose not to acknowledge known incidents of domestic violence. It was drummed into her that if she dressed in a certain way, spoke to strangers or stayed out late she could be raped – and it would be her fault for putting herself in that situation.

The writing style is fragmented, jumping between investigation and informed opinion on each case. Lists of other unresolved murders of women are included. Femicide is far from unusual.

“My friends and I were still alive, but we could have been Andrea, Maria Luisa or Sarita. We were just luckier.”

Almada’a personal history is interwoven with her research into the dead girls’ lives – a reimagining of their last days. She uncovers horrific tales of gangs of boys raping individual girls with impunity, and of older men paying for a young girl to have sex with. The accounts are searing and disturbing although never voyeuristic. Life is not portrayed as happy for anyone mentioned.

An interview with the brother of one of the murdered girls highlights the arrogance of men in the country. This does not lead to any sense of fulfilment – several suicides are mentioned. Certain family members chose not to meet with the author, preferring to put what happened behind them. Others agreed to a visit then appear to have rehearsed what they were willing to share.

There are elements of the narrative that I found odd – perhaps a cultural difference. The author regularly consults a psychic – as do other characters featured – and gives credence to what is said.

That aside, this is a clear-eyed and compelling account of a journalistic investigation into murders for which no one has been punished. That they are a drop in an ocean of similar cases makes for a chilling read.

Dead Girls is published by Charco Press.

Book Review: Feebleminded

Feebleminded, by Ariana Harwicz (translated by Annie McDermott and Carolina Orloff), is a disturbing depiction of an intense mother and daughter relationship. The younger woman is around thirty years of age and consumed by the affair she is having with a married man who lives many miles away. The older woman wants to know all the details, having once been sexually decadent and adventurous herself. Told from the point of view of the daughter, the reader is offered a stream of consciousness and ongoing reactions alongside flashbacks to a childhood that was is some ways ordinary but coloured by the mother’s similar distractions and needs.

The pair live in a remote, rural home that also housed the grandmother until her death. The picture painted is of women who seek release through alcohol and men but do not sustain conventional relationships. There is both lethargy and anger, the beauty of location fogged by fluctuations in mood and introspection.

The story is written in three parts. The first dives deep into the daughter’s thoughts and agitations as she satisfies her body’s cravings between assignations. Her lover does not contact her as often as she needs. There is desperation, a feeling of suffocation in the inanities of the everyday. The mother and daughter drink together, suffer hangovers and berate the sexual choices each has made. Happy moments from their past, those that started with innocence and childish pleasure in memory, were rarely sustained. The mother rushed her adolescent daughter into a womanhood that they could share, taking delight in knowing the details of burgeoning sexual activity. Now she watches as her daughter sinks into a lassitude of frustration over a man who lives with and loves another.

The second part sees the daughter lose her job due to her preoccupation with this man. Her mother fears destitution and blames her daughter for granting too much importance and attention to the affair. The pair argue, yet there remains mutual concern.

“I’m not a fucking ATM. Mum pulls a sorrowful face and I imagine stroking it. They always find a way to get you, these women with long, straight, clean-smelling, usually honey-coloured hair. They can say the most horrendous things, behave like utter despots, but afterwards you still want to run your fingers through the strands. How much is left, how long can we survive?”

The third part of the book sees the daughter leave their home but then discover that the man will not forsake his wife as she is pregnant, despite how he had spoken of their relations. The mother and daughter plot a terrible revenge.

The writing is dark and intense yet in places, somehow, also poetic. It is shocking in its rarely voiced, searing authenticity. The imagery is violent in its beauty, grotesque in its imaginings, yet provides sunbeams in momentary descriptions. There is care and a shared lust for life amidst the discord and blame.

Described as the second part in an ‘involuntary’ trilogy that opened with the critically acclaimed Die, My Love, this book will appeal especially to those who enjoyed the former work. It is impressively potent and tightly tempestuous. A memorable if not always comfortable read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Charco Press.