After reading Selva Almada’s excellent short novel The Wind that Lays Waste (translated by Chris Andrews, published by Charco Press) last year, I was fortunate enough to catch a talk at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in which she discussed her next book in English with fellow Argentinean writer Maríana Enriquez (in Spanish!). Sadly, that talk is no longer available at the site, but I’ve finally got around to trying the book, so you can make do with my review, instead. It’s another wonderful work, but I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed it – and once you’ve heard more about the book, I’m sure you’ll understand why…
Dead Girls (translated by Annie McDermott, review copy courtesy of Charco Press) is a non-fiction work in which Almada investigates three real-life crimes that occurred in Argentina in the 1980s. In 1983, María Luisa Quevedo set off to work, and her body was found three days later; in 1986, Andrea Danne was stabbed through the heart while she lay in bed; and two years after that, Sarita Mundín went out with her older lover, never to return. All horrific crimes with a sad truth in common – in none of these cases was a murderer ever found.
Growing up in the same era as these unfortunate women, Almada decides to go in search of the truth, wanting to find out what really happened. As she travels across the country perusing old newspaper clippings and interviewing family members, a pattern emerges of a nation where women’s lives are held cheap. While her mission starts with a focus on individuals, it widens to become an investigation into Argentina and femicide, wondering why women are in so much danger here, and what can be done to change this.
A word of warning – Dead Girls is not always a pleasant read, providing a look at a country and an issue it hasn’t resolved. Almada paints a striking picture of 1980s Argentina, with its poor rural towns, superstition, machismo and abuse, as well as reaching back to her own childhood. As she recalls stories from her youth, there’s always a sense of her good fortune at being somehow protected from the fate that met other young women.
Determined to learn more about the three crimes she chooses to examine, the writer travels around the country, interviewing those who knew the women and poring over case files, laying out the cold, hard facts for the reader. There’s a reason why she’s determined to tell, retell these stories:
Maybe this is your mission: to gather the bones of these girls, piece them together, give them a voice and then let them run, free and unfettered, wherever they have to go.
p.32 (Charco Press, 2020)
Of course, this is partly because of the unsolved nature of the crimes. Given the brutality of the murders, she’s unable to believe that those responsible have seemingly gone free.
And yet that shouldn’t come as a surprise as Almada knows full well that the three women she’s concerned with are just the tip of the iceberg:
Since 1977 in Villa María, some twenty unpunished murders have been recorded. In 2002, the femicide of Mariela La Condorito López led to the formation of the Truth and Justice Organisation, which later became, Real Truth, Justice for All.
La Condorito, a mentally disabled prostitute, was found with her throat cut, wrapped in a blanket, on a piece of wasteland in the city. (p.99)
The topic of femicide will undoubtedly remind some readers of Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season, but Almada’s work takes a slightly different, perhaps more subtle, approach to the subject. Instead of the constant anger and confronting scenes, we find here a mix between the mundane and the horrifying. These ‘other’ murders are periodically mentioned in the book, sudden, surprising, a way of jolting the reader out of their comfort zone. Every time we settle down into a rhythm, the writer is quick to remind us just what it is we’re learning about.
There’s a rather voyeuristic nature to Dead Girls, with Almada carefully depicting scenes involving the victims:
In the torpor of her room, María Luisa opened her eyes and sat up in bed, ready to get up and go to work in the Casucho family home. She’d got a job there not long ago, as a maid. (p.11)
As we watch events unfold, we feel increasingly guilty, dirty even. Most readers will undoubtedly feel ashamed for watching the young women’s last moments, accompanying them on their final journeys while knowing what lies just around the corner.
Interestingly, Almada is very much a key character in her own book, and her childhood stories, the whispers, and rumours floating around her home town, help to create a fuller picture of life in country towns. There are even glimpses of her brushes with the supernatural in the form of visits to an old shaman as a child, and her sessions with the ‘Señora’ now. Most of all, though, her experiences show just how risky life can be for women in rural Argentina. There’s an evening she spends at the Carnival and disturbing events she sees there, as well as her (perhaps misguided) attempt to track down the brother of one of the victims. As she finds herself alone with a stranger on an empty street, it brings across the potential danger she might face.
Dead Girls is a brutal, necessary story in which Almada describes the crimes, states the facts and lays bare the horror of these femicides. In doing so, she holds up a mirror to the society that allowed this, and that tolerates the growing number of ‘dead girls. While it may not be the most pleasant of reads (and that’s probably an understatement), it’s important all the same. This certainly isn’t a story that’s only applicable to Argentina, and I’m sure that wherever you are, all around the world, you can think of very similar local cases. The truth is that for many readers, particularly women, the overriding emotion on reading the book will be a realisation – that could have been me…