‘Boulder’ by Eva Baltasar (Review – IBP 2023, Number Five)

It’s taken a while, but after finally getting through all the preliminaries, I’ve made it to the first of the full review posts for this year’s International Booker Prize longlist.  We’re heading off on our first journey for the new year, and quite a journey it is, too.  After a short trip to Chile, we’ll be heading further north, but despite all this adventure, what ensues is something far more commonplace.  This is a book about making a family, and how the desire to become closer can end up driving us further apart…

Boulder by Eva Baltasar
– And Other Stories, translated by Julia Sanches
(digital review copy courtesy of the publisher)
What’s it all about?
Escaping from a dull life in Barcelona, a Spanish woman moves to South America, first working as a cook on a summer camp, then hopping onboard a ship travelling up and down the Chilean coast, where she enjoys months of feeding the crew and doing very little else.  It’s an enjoyable life in some ways, but eventually she feels there’s something missing, and that something is sex, and someone to share it with.

Unsurprisingly, then, one day on land, a certain someone catches her eye:

I can’t not look at her, like when you peer over the edge of a boat and come face-to-face with a shark. I forget to add sugar to my coffee, I burn my tongue. I feel the hardness of the rock in which desire has become lodged, as if for all time. I look at her and feel woozy, even though she’s Scandinavian and makes her living from a multinational with blood on its hands. I look at her and she fills every corner of me.
p.16 (And Other Stories, 2022)

A torrid affair ensues, and when it’s time for Samsa, the Nordic lover, to return to her home in Iceland, she invites the woman to join her – and another phase of her life begins…

This introductory passage doesn’t last too long, and the bulk of the book (which is fairly short, anyway) is spent in Iceland, where we watch the relationship unfold and, eventually, unravel.  The two women are from different backgrounds, with very different ideas of how their life should be, and the title of the book comes from the woman’s nickname, Boulder, provided by Samsa, which turns out to be rather apt.  But is she to be a rock of support, or an immovable obstacle in the way of happiness?

From the start, the narrator is rather  unconvinced by Iceland, and the life she finds there:

I don’t like them, Icelanders. They feel so insular, tribal. I envy their strength, their asymptomatic bodies, the painful brightness of their eyes. They’re born with pieces of their enormous island inside them, as they grow old they become attached to them and as adults they emanate an almost earthly force that seems to celebrate them and bring them closer together. I can put up with them one-on-one, but in groups I find them exhausting. (p.25)

Shying away from social events, she finds refuge in her job washing dishes in a dingy pub, drinking and smoking with the owner, Ragnar, and returning for sex sessions with her perfect, highflying lover.

The conflict at the heart of the novel comes five years on with Samsa’s wish, demand even, for a baby.  Boulder knows she has no real choice in the matter, but she’s scared of her life being disrupted, suspecting she’ll be unable to cope with the changes in her partner, and in their routines.  She goes into it all hoping that it’ll work out, while suspecting that it won’t.

Like Permafrost, Boulder consists of short sections building a lengthy monologue.  It can be more sombre at times, with the narrator’s sobering reflections on life, and fairly angry, too:

Then they draw her blood again. Blood, the snitch everyone hates. It keeps you alive on one condition: transparency. It creeps around the body like a shrewd domestic who has access to every room and knows everything there is to know about you. And who talks under pressure. The body is too basic, too weak; it can’t be trusted. Only the mind can console us for its disloyalty; the only flag it flies is that of freedom, made of the bones of truth and the bones of lies—a cross; white against black. Blood respects nothing. (pp.54/5)

This anger, one that often has no real object, is symptomatic of Boulder’s struggles.  She often finds herself withdrawing so as not to lash out, usually winding up drunk in an attempt to cope.

As hinted at in my review of Permafrost, there’s no explicit connection between the two books, but in the author biography at the end of the book, we’re told how they’re linked:

It is the first novel in a triptych that aims to explore the universes of three different women in the first person. (p.112)

And you can definitely see that.  The two books are different stories, but both deal with a gay woman working her way through life and dealing with the demands of domestication…

Wrapping up in just under a hundred pages, Boulder is a story taking us half-way across the world, spiky, graphic and tender in turns.  It’s a love story telling of a new life, and the inevitable crumbling of affections that ensues…

…I wonder what the third part of the tryptych will bring?

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
I don’t think so.  While I’ve enjoyed my first two tastes of Baltasar’s work, and her idiosyncratic style, I found them both a little light, and unlikely to linger in the memory.  Boulder certainly won’t be taking home the wooden spoon, but I doubt it’ll be challenging for my shortlist, either.

Will it make the shortlist?
Quite possibly.  I don’t think I’m exactly the target audience for Baltasar’s work, and I expect other readers to enjoy and appreciate it far more.  Obviously, I’ve got a fair way to go with the longlist, but I also think that it might benefit from being a little different to many of the other books, meaning it may just make enough of an impression to reach the next stage.

Let’s leave Iceland behind us, then, for it’s time to head off to rural France to meet a family preparing for a special event.  Yes, social gatherings are usually fun, but not if you get some unwelcome gatecrashers – this is going to be a party nobody’s likely to forget in a hurry…


4 thoughts on “‘Boulder’ by Eva Baltasar (Review – IBP 2023, Number Five)

  1. Interesting, Tony, and I get why it would be sensible to read them in order, even if they’re self-contained. But I do sense from what you say that despite being worth reading, they’re not necessarily of great substance…


    1. Grant – I’m not quite as sold on this as some of the other judges are (which means it’s bound to win the whole thing!).


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