‘Dead Girls’ by Selva Almada (Review)

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…

6 thoughts on “‘Dead Girls’ by Selva Almada (Review)

  1. Thanks Tony for this review. I also read the book and reviewed it at Peak Reads after seeing the interview with Mariana Enriquez at the Edinburgh Festival. Though the brutality of the murders is not shied away from I didn’t find it such a difficult read as Hurricane Season, maybe the semi journalistic style, the distance of time. But as I said in my review I would have liked a bit more analysis as to why the perpetrators were not found and brought to justice.

    Like

    1. Mandy – It’s certainly far less of an ordeal than Melchor’s book! Regarding your issue, I think it’s probably something that doesn’t need to be spelled out to her home audience. Women go missing, and their deaths are routine, and routinely covered up…

      Like

  2. The Wind that Lay Waste was my novel of the year, but I didn’t feel this worked as well as it could have. I think that it would have worked better if the focus had either been on one murder (interlinked with her own memories which, I agree, really enhances the book) or more than three – or at least three which seemed connected. If I remember correctly, one case seems quite different from the others. Like Mandy, I felt there was a lack of analysis at times. This is not to say it is a bad book, but a good one which I felt could have been great.

    Like

    1. Grant – Not sure I agree. I think a focus on one of the murders would have made it slightly dull, and any greater analysis would have taken away from the literary aspect of the work (which, for me, is paramount).

      Like

Every comment left on my blog helps a fairy find its wings, so please be generous - do it for the fairies.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.