I bought my Kindle back in 2011, and ever since, I’ve done my best to come to terms with digital books. However, the sad truth is that I always approach e-reading with a shudder, prioritising books from the shelves over all but the most eagerly anticipated electronic titles. That’s not really a problem (it’s not as if I’m short of books to read), but it does mean that there are some excellent books that slip through the cracks, titles I would have got to years ago if I’d had a hard copy…
…I think you can see where this is going 😉
Lina Meruane’s Seeing Red (translated by Megan McDowell, electronic review copy courtesy of Deep Vellum Press) starts with a woman at a house party whose evening is cut short by a sudden internal interruption:
And then a firecracker went off in my head. But no, it was no fire I was seeing, it was blood spilling out inside my eye. The most shockingly beautiful blood I have ever seen. The most outrageous. The most terrifying. The blood gushed, but only I could see it. With absolute clarity I watched as it thickened, I saw the pressure rise, I watched as I got dizzy, I saw my stomach turn, saw that I was starting to retch, and even so, I didn’t straighten up or move an inch, didn’t even try to breathe while I watched the show. Because that was the last thing I would see, that night, through that eye: a deep, black blood.
p.4 (Deep Vellum Press, 2016)
Lina, a Chilean writer living in New York, has been forced to live a careful life because of potential eye problems, and this is the moment the sword of Damocles finally falls. The veins behind her eyes have burst, and unbeknownst to those around her, her world begins to drift into darkness.
A new phase of her life now begins, and with the help of her partner, Ignacio, she must learn to cope with the situation. The almost complete loss of her eyesight means adjusting to a new way of life while she waits and hopes for a miracle. Surgery is one possibility, but there’s no guarantee that it’ll be a success, even if her doctor agrees to the procedure. Slowly, Lina must come to terms with remaining in her new life in the darkness for good.
Seeing Red is a wonderful read, but a scary one in many ways, the story of what follows when what we always feared actually happens. As you might have guessed from the protagonist’s name, there are several autobiographical touches, including her diabetes diagnosis, but it’s still a novel, diverging from the writer’s own experiences. The book consists of many short sections, most of which are written in the first-person, lending an emotional, personal touch to a story depicting the loss of the sense writers (and readers) need the most.
While it’s a heavy blow, the loss of sight does bring some benefits, with Lina beginning to develop her other senses. Meruane explores sounds and smells as her alter-ego feels her way around her darkened world and must learn new ways of getting her bearings:
I asked questions that grated on Ignacio. Is the north still to my left? Yes, there it was, the north was where it always was, with its thick sky. I couldn’t lose focus, my entire being demanded a multiplied concentration, an absolute dedication to the geography of things. And my head was buzzing, it was heating up with the images that every one of Ignacio’s words stirred up in my memory. He said Central Park,and my head filled with blue ducks and tadpoles in phosphorescent lagoons defying the tourists. (p.26)
Part of the success of the book is the way it takes us away from the visual, forcing us, like Lina to use other senses in order to understand the world.
Luckily, Lina is not alone. Ignacio is always there for her, and parts of the book are actually addressed to him (‘you’). In fact, Seeing Red is just as much about their relationship as it is about Lina’s health issues. From the start, she’s completely up front with her warnings to the man wanting to enter her life:
So you’ll understand why I haven’t told you about my brother abandoning me and my parents abandoning him and later how I also abandoned them all, everyone, in search of someone with a true vocation for sacrifice, someone drowning in love or indoctrinated in the need to love, someone with an absurdly heroic passion, some guy with a pure and absolutely unconditional death wish. (p.65)
However, these frank admissions are actually subtle attempts to entrap him. This is just the first of a series of selfish actions that culminate in a shocking climax.
The main theme of the vein bursting and the wait for the operation is broken up by a visit home. Lina takes a trip to Santiago to see her family while she waits to see whether her eyes will recover, and in this part of the novel the writer touches on recent events in Chile (with frequent mentions of bullet holes in buildings and a dearth of quality newspapers). Ignacio’s parallel trip to Argentina shows another side to South America as that country’s economy has gone down the toilet, a timely reminder that Lina isn’t the only one with issues.
For much of the book, though, we remain trapped in Lina’s perspective, experiencing the surroundings as she does. Having moved into a new apartment in New York, she has difficulty learning to cope with unfamiliar obstacles, yet her return to Santiago grants her some breathing space. She’s able to envisage the city as she left it, directing Ignacio around her home town on their drives. In fact, here it’s Ignacio (a Spaniard) that is blind, struggling with the unfamiliar money, directions and vocabulary. While fairly innocent by themself, these scenes foreshadow how he will become even more lost towards the end of the book.
Seeing Red is a wonderful short novel, with a bite that lifts it above a sob story, and McDowell’s usual excellent work makes it a highly enjoyable read. It’s a sobering tale of coming to terms with a worst case scenario, one I wish I’d read earlier – which I would have, if it’d been on paper… I can’t say I’ll ever get used to electronic reading, but there are times when it pays to make the effort. At any rate, I’ll do my best in future to get to any potential gems a lot sooner 😉