‘Feebleminded’ by Ariana Harwicz (Review)

Over at Stu Allen’s Winstonsdad’s Blog, Spanish-Language Literature Month is in full swing, and while originally I didn’t have any plans to join in, it’s turned out that I’ll be covering two eligible books this week.  Watch out on Thursday for my next post, in which I take a look at the latest novel by an old friend, but today’s review is also on a book by a writer I’ve encountered before.  It’s off to Argentina we go for some adventures with a couple of women you should really watch yourselves around – otherwise, you may be in for a nasty surprise…

*****
Ariana Harwicz’s Die, My Love (translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff) was Charco Press’s first big success, thanks largely to its longlisting for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize (as it was called at the time).  It’s unsurprising, then, that the Scottish indie publishers have come back with another of the Argentinean writer’s works, this time in the form of the short novel Feebleminded (translated by Annie McDermott and Carolina Orloff, review copy courtesy of the publisher), another searing story offering insights into the female psyche.  This latest book is just as disturbing as the previous one, but the main difference is that this time around the protagonist has brought her mum along for the ride.

Feebleminded consists of a series of short chapters told in a somewhat confusing first-person monologue by a woman living with her mother in a rural Argentinean town.  Initially, it can be difficult to make out who’s talking, and what’s happening, but the more you read, the clearer the story becomes, and a plot of sorts begins to take shape, with a focus on the relationship between the two women gradually shifting to the daughter’s problems with a man she’s been seeing.

With the women struggling to get by, and the man not exactly a prize catch, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that this is all unlikely to turn out well, but the daughter’s attempt to move on is doomed to failure from the start, mainly because she turns to the wrong person for help.  As in Die, My Love, the narrator is her own worst enemy, trapped both in a dead-end relationship and the squalor of the house she shares with her mum.  I have to say, it doesn’t always make for pleasant reading…

The main focus of the first of the three parts is the mother-daughter relationship, and here Harwicz explores the way a rather interesting lifestyle has been passed on from one generation to the next.  In fact, we later learn that this was the case with the grandmother, too (making for a very interesting kind of legacy).  As the protagonist describes a childhood of witnessing her mother staggering home drunk and sleeping with a string of men, it soon becomes clear that she never really wanted a daughter, holding out for a comrade-in-arms instead:

Desperate to smoke like two chimneys at sunset, to go drinking in a pub full of tattooed sailors and giggle at the bar like two hysterical small-town girls as we feel their biceps.  To go to the urinals amd fantasise shamelesly.  To dance a bolero pressed up tight against me without worrying the authorities will come after her again, that she’ll have to pick me up later, hanging her head.  Trying hard to sound measured like the other women at the police station.
pp.27/8 (Charco Press, 2019)

Ironically, now that her daughter has grown up, the older woman fears being left behind in favour of a man, which seems a suitable form of payback, or revenge, for the neglect of her childhood.

It’s this man, though, that becomes the third point of the triangle, and even though it’s clear that he sees the young woman as merely an opportunity for sex, her thoughts are scrambled by her need for him, leaving her unable to think straight.  Even when he tries to hint at his lack of interest (and commitment), she’s unable to process the information:

I listened with the reverential astonishment of a feebleminded woman getting things muddled, lost in the countless details that engulf her, a plague of microbes on the esplanade, I mistake the swishing of the animals for the plants, sunburnt lizards scuttling into the drainpipes.  By the end everything was vague, inexact, blurred.  What had he just told me? (p.17)

The penny has to drop eventually, and when it does, of course, she’ll be flung back into the arms of her mother and her squalid life.  What happens next – well, that would be telling 😉

As absorbing as Feebleminded can be at times, in truth, it’s not the easiest story to get into.  There’s a confusion of voices, with the short, staccato sentences and jumbled thoughts dragging the reader along, at times unwillingly.  In addition, it’s a confronting tale in many ways owing to the frequent mentions of sex, language and violence (which would be no surprise to anyone who read Die, My Love).  It certainly won’t be for everyone, and I have to admit that I struggled to really enjoy it at times.

If you did like the earlier book, though, I suspect you’ll be happy here.  For all its rough edges, Feebleminded is an absorbing short novel that speeds by, with the reader bracing all the while for the train-wreck of an ending you can’t help but anticipate.  The villain is very much the married man having his way with the woman (and preparing to cast her off), yet you sense that Harwicz is in part blaming her heroine for being sucked in:

Even knowing it off by heart, that the suffering caused by the impossibility of passion is what makes it so passionate, still we fight to make it possible.  Why the fuck is that?  Now I’ll let you speak.  Shhh.  Because that’s what women are like, we’re wicked, pig-headed creatures.  We have feathers for brains. (p.90)

However, the theme of the book seems to be that you can only fool a woman for so long.  Eventually, however feebleminded you may think she is, the spell will be broken, and she’ll realise just what has been done to her.  You *really* don’t want to be there when that time arrives.

6 thoughts on “‘Feebleminded’ by Ariana Harwicz (Review)

  1. I didn’t connect with Die My Love, found it disjointed etc, but there’s something compelling about your review. Thanks, I might have skipped it otherwise. But I want to know more.

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  2. I hope to give Harwicz a try someday, and the monologal style you describe here sounds appealing to me. The mother/daughter tag team sounds like a unique twist for such a seemingly creepy story as well!

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  3. Well done in finding a storyline in this, probably the most distasteful novella I’ve ever read.

    But “insights into the female psyche”? I pity anyone who thinks they’ll find that in here. Try Riane Eisler for insights into the feminine.

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    1. Claire – Interesting to hear from someone who’s not a huge fan as Harwicz seems to have nothing but positive press! I have to say that she’s not exactly my favourite writer, but there is something in her work that appeals…

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