Where truth lies: A Working Woman by Elvira Navarro

When an author is lauded as a “relentless innovator” and a “meticulous explorer of the psyche’s most obscure alleyways,” it is easy to be skeptical. Those are strong endorsements, and a reader who enjoys a literary challenge knows well that a publisher’s promotional copy can be laced with hyperbole that often falls short of the mark. Yet, Spanish writer Elvira Navarro lives up to her billing with  A Working Woman, newly released from Two Lines Press, one of the most peculiar novels I have read in a long time. Its strangeness is subtle, the tone is ever so slightly off, the structure unconventional, and the narrator’s account inconsistent. The opening section is unsettling, even off-putting, but sets the groundwork for an oddly metafictional tale that unwinds (unravels?) slowly to end with a coda that places the purpose and nature of the entire preceding narrative into question.

It is an uncomfortable book. A rare and original look at the complex dynamics of female companionship, the bonds and distortions of madness, and the desire to find and define oneself, creatively and personally.

Set in Madrid, during in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis, Elisia is a proofreader with one novel, an MA in Publishing and an unfinished PhD behind her. She is one of the working wounded, so to speak.  She is lucky to have a job, but it has, over time, been reduced from a series of temporary placements to uncertain independent contract work for a publisher woefully behind with payments. She has already moved from an centrally located apartment to the barrio of Aluche in the southwest part of the city. As her financial circumstances become ever more precarious, she is faced with the prospect of renting her flat’s small second bedroom. When her friend Germán sets her up with Susana she does not know what to expect:

It was twelve thirty when she arrived. She wasn’t as I’d hoped, short and plump like a Hispanic mother, but the Nordic type: tall, blond, horsey, with a complexion the colour of something like raw silk. She was squeezed into a brown coat that came down to her ankles, and had a showy beige scarf around her neck. On her head was a green hat, with a swirl on one side like a flower. Weighed down by so much wool, she could hardly move, and her cheeks briefly glowed with two, perfect rosy circles. She was a bit ridiculous, particularly due to something that seemed to have its source in her nose, which, from the instant she crossed the threshold, appeared unpleasantly alert for any smell, the nostrils flared and quivering. It was such an eloquent gesture that, if I hadn’t previously committed it myself, I would never have considered accepting her as a roommate, and nor would she have taken the tiny room.

Their strained friendship sits at the core of A Working Woman. It is a relationship that seems, for the most part, to occupy an awkward space in the apartment, and in Elisia’s troubled imagination.  She exaggerates Susana’s impressive Amazonian dimensions, and finds her elusive nature—her tendency to at once take over the shared rooms with her belongings but share little about her past or her daily life—disconcerting.

However, by the time Susana crosses Elisia’s threshold for the first time in the narrative, we have already been treated, no exposed, to a graphic portrait of the woman she was twenty years earlier when, in a period of marked mental instability, she took a gay dwarf lover to meet her particular sexual needs. The novel opens with what we are told is a story based on what Susana told Elisia about her madness. “I’ve added some of my own reactions,” she tells us, setting her own words apart in italics, “but to be honest they are very few. It goes without saying her narrative was more chaotic.” For nearly forty pages, the narrator records a bizarre tale of sexual obsession. It’s easy for a reader to wonder what they’ve signed up for. Later on, one begins to suspect, that the entire set up says more about Elisia than whoever Susana may be (or may have been). Especially as she begins to develop symptoms of mental illness herself and is forced into seeking treatment. The layers of madness and sanity overlap with metafictional questions of narrative intent.

A Working Woman is imbued with an intense restlessness and anxiety that extends beyond the characters’ own uncertainties into the world around them. The narrative excavates the raw edges of Madrid where the economic downturn has left its mark. Empty storefronts, abandoned buildings, construction projects halted midstream. Elisia’s nocturnal wanderings through the streets of her neighbourhood is refracted in the countless city maps her roommate constructs out of tiny magazine clippings. But the two women are ultimately on different trajectories in life. Their worlds collide, but their connection, mediated through Elisia’s oddly unbalanced narrative, is neither warm nor natural. It is not even clear that Susana, or at least Susana as presented, exists beyond the narrator’s literary aspirations—or her own delusions.

Confusing? Yes and no. Navarro’s language is direct and compelling. She creates vivid multidimensional physical and psychological landscapes. Her ability to evoke, through her narrator’s breakdown, the sensation of losing the ability to cling to reality is especially powerful, and one I recognize well from my own experiences:

I managed to alight from the bus—there was still no ground under my feet, and I had to support myself against the buildings. Then I sat down in a doorway and stayed there for I don’t know how long, until my sense of touch returned. It occurred to me that I was crazy. I formulated this thought ten, twenty times. Movement was painful. The lacerating rumble of traffic. The tense, high-pitched voices of friends chatting in doorways. The people walking behind me. Their breathing, their bodies, were too close. I was intolerable even to myself, wanted to tear my body to pieces.

From its unusual, attention-grabbing beginning to the curious short chapter that ends (or upends) the book, to read A Working Woman is to enter an altered hyper-reality, a place filled with strange, yet strangely recognizable, figures who leave you wondering where truth lies, and where stories within stories begin, and end.

A Working Woman by Elvira Navarro is translated by Christina MacSweeney and published by Two Lines Press.

In the window of a passing train: Faces In the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli

“All novels lack something or someone. In this novel there’s no one. No one except a ghost that I used to see sometimes in the subway.”

Faces in the Crowd, the debut novel from the young Mexican novelist Valeria Luiselli, is indeed a book of ghosts. The narrator is a young wife and mother living in Mexico City. As she tries to carve out time and space to write a novel, she draws the reader into a reflective exploration of ghosts – the ghosts that haunt her present house, the ghost of a life she fell into living and working in New York City, and the ghost of Gilberto Owen, an obscure Latin American poet who lived in Harlem in the late 1920s.

And for a book of ghosts it is brilliantly, shockingly alive.

crowdThe novel opens with a deceptively simple narrative feel. Contemporary domestic life is played out against her reflections on her past life in New York City when she was younger, unencumbered and working as a translator for a small independent publisher. She catalogues the friends and lovers that drifted through her spare apartment. One day she happens to encounter the work of Gilberto Owen on a search for potential material for translation, but before long her professional interest turns into an obsession. She tries to pass off her translations of his work as translations by a better known poet, an attempt that comes dangerously close to succeeding. She rescues a dead plant from the roof of the building he once lived in. She imagines that she sees him in the subway – more than once. Finally it is clear to her that she must leave:

“In the subway, on my way home, I saw Owen for the last time. I believe he waved to me. But by then it did not matter, I’d lost my enthusiasm. Something had broken. the ghost, it was obvious, was me.”

For all the empty space in her earlier life, married life is clearly suffocating our narrator. She continually finds herself unable to breathe, struggling to focus on her writing in a large house, cluttered with toys, distracted by the demands of her children – simply referred to as “the boy” and “the baby” – and the jealous curiosity of her architect husband. As the fictionalized first person account of Owen’s life begins to assume a greater prominence within the story, her marriage starts to unravel (or perhaps she simply writes her husband into the background) while the overall narrative structure seems to disintegrate, boundaries blur. The novel within the novel becomes enmeshed with her day-to-day life, folding back on and re-envisioning the experiences recounted from her earlier life in New York. Or was that Owen’s life?

Echoing the continually reshaped game of hide and seek between mother and son running throughout this novel, Faces in the Crowd lays out a metafictional game of hide and seek. Can a horizontal novel be told vertically? How is such a story to be read? Where in translation does truth lie? And when can you play with truth? It winds up to a delightfully oblique ending. Or lack of ending – rather, an invitation to imagine, to reread.

I opened this book completely unprepared for the heart-stopping luminosity of the prose or the way that the narrative is fragmented and rebuilt to create a rich meditation on the nature of story telling. Valeria Luiselli demonstrates a maturity and confidence that belies her age without ever falling into a heavily somber tone. The translation by Christina MacSweeney maintains the lively, poetic flow of this impressive debut. I was pleasantly surprised by this intelligent and enjoyable read.

Faces in the Crowd has been longlisted for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award (BTBA).

Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, translated by Christina MacSweeney                Coffee House Press, 2014