‘Woman in Darkness’ by Luisgé Martín (Review)

IMG_5267So far for Spanish-Language Literature Month, I’ve looked at two writers whose work I hadn’t previously tried, and that trend continues today with a third new discovery.  The publisher, however, is very familiar, as this is another novel published by Hispabooks, a Madrid-based press focusing on contemporary Spanish literary fiction.  Over the past couple of years, I’ve read several of their books, some of which (e.g. The Happy City, Antón Mallick Wants to be Happy) have been fairly light.  However, today’s offering is certainly not one of those – it could only be described as, well, dark…

*****
Luisgé Martín’s Woman in Darkness (translated by Michael McDevitt, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a short novel looking at secrets, lies and the hidden desires deep within.  The story begins with Guillermo, a man approaching forty with a beautiful wife and a kid on the way.  Not all is as it seems, however, as he confesses one day to his friend, Eusebio; you see, for some time Guillermo has been visiting Marcia, a dominatrix who degrades him mercilessly before sending him back to his domestic bliss…

When Guillermo is killed in a traffic accident (his ‘affair’ still a secret to his wife), Eusebio decides that Marcia needs to know, and having worked out her address, goes to tell her.  However, when he sees how beautiful she is, he promptly falls in love with her instead… or does he?  Julia, as she is more properly known, treats Eusebio with tenderness, which confuses our friend somewhat.  Is this really the same woman who humiliated and degraded his friend?  If so, why doesn’t she want to do the same to him?  Thus begins his slow descent into madness…

A phenomenon I’ve only recently become aware of is that of trigger warnings, and while in general they’re not something I believe in much, in this case I feel I owe it to the reader to give them a heads up.  I’m warning you now: if you don’t want to read about some of the less usual (and in many cases illegal) forms of sexual gratification, this is not the book for you – the word darkness is in the title for good reason.  I’ll also throw in a second trigger warning for good measure: those expecting a Fifty Shades… knock-off should stay away too – the writing is a little too sophisticated for that 😉

Woman in Darkness is, in essence, a fascinating story of a man’s inability to deal with his lover’s hidden past.  Once Guillermo’s relationship with Julia/Marcia starts to become serious, he becomes ever more obsessed with what Guillermo told him about her:

“Eusebio loves Marcia, but when these images flash through his mind, he feels like retching – nausea, loathing, helplessness.  He cannot believe she is capable of such things.  Marcia is sweet, sensitive, bashful.  She is apt to blush when undressing.  She caresses him tenderly, gently.  She abhors violence.  The woman Guillermo spoke of – cruel and unhinged – cannot be the same one who lingers long over every kiss, exploring the hollows of his flesh until he shivers in delight.”
p.82 (Hispabooks, 2014)

When his attempts to elicit her secrets fail,  he decides to research the world of sexuality, and in doing so he discovers a lot about his own desires.  But does he really want these things?  And, if so, how did he not know this before…

Martín’s novel is also a story of the double lives people lead, with most of the characters introduced in Woman in Darkness turning out to have secrets.  Eusebio relates anecdotes of hidden lives (for example, the tragic tale of Uncle Marcelinho and the hole in the sock…) and he discovers more through his trawls through the adult websites he begins to frequent.  While the people he chats to there tend to have unusual sexual preferences, in person, in their ‘other’ lives, they’re ‘normal’, friendly.  Eusebio realises that it’s impossible to tell from the surface the dark secrets hidden within, yet getting beneath that surface often comes at a price (as he’ll soon find out).

From the start of the book, the author plays on the importance of names, with many of his characters rechristening themselves.  There’s Marcia/Julia, of course, and also Guillermo (whose real name is Segismundo) and his wife Olivia (born as a Nicole).  When you add to those the whole host of online pseudonyms, you get the impression that a change of name can bring about a change of character or, at least, allow an existing character trait to rise to the surface, temporarily suppressing what we think of as ‘normal’ behaviour.

And if there’s one thing Woman in Darkness addresses, it’s what ‘normal’ behaviour, our ‘normal’ character, is.  Guillermo certainly has his doubts before his first session with Marcia, fearing that his ‘true’ character might be displaced:

“Would he become a monster, a grotesque laughingstock, a circus clown?  Would his free will be at the mercy of his instincts, his basest impulses?  Would he abandon Olivia to give himself over to a life of debauchery and lurid urges?” (p.32)

These doubts are mirrored by Eusebio’s constant questions, his wondering whether the world he’s researching in order to find out more about his partner is something he secretly wants to be a part of.  In fact, his story is a tragedy – his uncertainty about Julia and her love for him leads him to throw it all away…

While there’s a lot to like about the book, it’s certainly not perfect.  It takes a little while to warm up with some clumsy scene-setting at the start of the story, and even later on there’s a little too much info-dumping at times.  However, it does make for fascinating reading, with the best aspect of book being Eusebio’s gradual disintegration, a collapse we are allowed (in a slightly voyeuristic way…) to witness first-hand.  In desperately trying to make Julia confess to her past life, Eusebio tours the shadowy side of sexual behaviour, hoping to understand her better.  If only he’d just ask…

Woman in Darkness is unsettling at times, but certainly enjoyable (for its premise and writing, at least).  A blurb on the back of the book mentions Japanese writer Jun’ichiro Tanizaki (Quicksand, Some Prefer Nettles), and while Martín’s novel is much more graphic than Tanizaki’s work, what the two writers do share is a desire to explore the idea of ordinary people hiding extraordinary secrets:

“Do all those who surround him have a secret to hide?  Is the heart of everyone he has ever known cloaked in spider webs?” (p.122)

The answer is a definite yes – what we see on the surface is nothing compared to what lies beneath.  Martín certainly believes that what really makes us human is what we keep concealed, deep in the darkness of our souls.  Whether you’d ever want to actually see it is another matter entirely…

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4 thoughts on “‘Woman in Darkness’ by Luisgé Martín (Review)

    1. Grant – A little different in the way it’s portrayed, but there are definite similarities in the examination of secrets and people’s hidden desires 🙂

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  1. Your mention of too much info-dumping at times seems borne out by some of your quotes. Can see how the story or storytelling might be “fascinating” all the same but I think I’ll stick with my current backlog before adding this one to the queue!

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    1. Richard – It’s still a good read, and another of his is coming out from Hispabooks soon; I’ll have to get back to you when I’ve tried that one 😉

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