‘Permafrost’ by Eva Baltasar (Review)

After rounding up the four International Booker Prize longlisters I’d read prior to the announcement, I was all set to get cracking on the first of the nine unread books – until, that is, one of my fellow shadow judges put a little doubt in my mind.  You see, the writer in question had already had one book out in English, with the same publisher, and a suggestion was put out that the two books were linked…  Well, that was enough to give me pause for thought, and since I was able to get digital copies of both (and since they’re both short), I decided to start with the non-longlisted book as an introduction to the writer’s work.

I’ll get started on the longlist properly next time, I promise 😉

Eva Baltasar’s Permafrost (translated by Julia Sanches, digital review copy courtesy of And Other Stories) is a short novel, narrated by a woman around forty, in which she chats to the reader about her life.  The book is mainly set in Barcelona, and our protagonist is a woman who likes women, with one feature of the novel being descriptions of her sex life, which can be fairly graphic at times.

For the most part, Permafrost is marked by a cheery style, but the content isn’t always quite as happy.  Early on, the speaker reveals hints of issues in the background:

I’ve settled on an edge, I live on this edge and wait for the moment when I’ll leave the edge, my temporary home.  Temporary—like any home, in fact, or like a body. I’m not on medication. Chemicals are bridles that restrict you and slow you to a harmless pace. Chemicals mean early salvation; they ward off sin, or maybe they just teach us to label as sinful the exercise of freedom attained in times of peace—before death, of course.
p.15 (And Other Stories, 2021)

That breezy last phrase, added as an afterthought, carries far more weight in the novel than may initially appear, and the more we learn about the woman’s life, the darker things become.

In terms of plot, there’s not really much to Baltasar’s book.  It’s a diary of sorts, bouncing around between various themes and events, taking us back to the narrator’s younger days while also recounting what she’s been up to recently.  Early on, we’re told of her idyllic life as a lazy student in her aunt’s city-centre flat, sleeping around (often with the flat-mates she sublets to).  When forced to leave this haven, she decides to head off abroad, cutting short a trip to rainy Scotland and staying longer in Belgium, where she falls into a life as a Spanish-language teacher.

Gradually the hints of flings coalesce into more serious relationships.  The first of these is with Veronika, the voluptuous student in Brussels who soon becomes something more, while on her return to Barcelona, the narrator hooks up with Roxanne, a Frenchwoman the woman obsesses over, even if there’s more lust than love.  Yet there’s never really any hint of happily ever after in these affairs, with our heroine always destined to move on, unwilling to be tied down.

Unlike the women she sleeps with, though, her family is something she can’t run away from, ties she can’t escape.  There’s a sense of resigned dread underlying her relationship with her mother, a drama queen who always knows how to get under her skin:

“You can’t even draw a face out of a six and a four,” Mom used to say, exercising the frank concern with which she kept my self-confidence in a near-vegetative state. “Maybe you’re right,” I conceded at last. Doubt: the first chink in the permafrost. “Of course,” she said. “Listen to us. Don’t we always want what’s best for you? Does anyone know you better than we do? You’re too young to have any idea what you should or shouldn’t do.” I gave in out of exhaustion, but also out of irrational fear.
Fear, domineering mother. Turns out it’s practically impossible to wean off her tit. (p.26)

When she finds herself without a place to stay on returning to her home town, the narrator also rekindles her relationship with her sister.  Despite sister dearest’s clumsy attempts to learn more about women in bed, the two do become closer than before.

In her effusive translator’s note, Sanches reveals how the book developed from notes Baltasar’s therapist told her to make, these anecdotes then morphing into fiction.  She also stresses the importance of the writer’s poetry background, providing examples of the musicality of the writer’s prose, and explaining how she felt it was her job to keep the rhythm of the text in the target language.

It’s all nicely done, and the heart of the book lies in the contrast between the usual casual, sardonic style and the times where the woman’s true feelings temporarily show.  Despite the bravado, the carefree life abroad, and the lack of concern about the future, there’s plenty of room for anxiety and doubts, and you always feel that something could give in her life at any moment.

Permafrost is a quick, fun read, but one with a darkness beneath its sunny surface, and while Baltasar excels in sprinkling clues as to where we’re going, she still manages to get us there with a surprise.  As it turns out, it’s not really necessary to try this before reading the book on the longlist as the connection between them has more to do with the style and themes than the characters.  Nevertheless, it’s an enjoyable read, and it makes for a nice introduction to the writer’s work – which leads us nicely to the actual longlister (next time, I swear!).


2 thoughts on “‘Permafrost’ by Eva Baltasar (Review)

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 )

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.