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.