Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Review: 'A Beautiful Young Woman'

by Fenella Johnson

In L√≥pez’s enticing debut novel, a man examines his childhood in hopes of better understanding his mother’s disappearance in the charged political atmosphere of Buenos Aires , during the military coup of the 1970s. He gains new understanding of his mother's activism, and in the process reframes the memories from his childhood in the political context of the time, coming to terms with a deeply felt loss.

Everything in Julian Lopez’s  debut novel ‘A Beautiful Young Woman’ is too much ; the Argentine summers, which become in the narrator’s mind one eternal blurred summer, are too oppressive and hot.The city of Buenos Aires is overwhelming in smell and sound : the characters are too lurid and sultry, the women obvious caricatures of telenovela actresses. Even the adjectives in the title seem excessive. This is fitting in a way, for the novel is written from the perspective of a child- no wonder then, that everything is too large and too vivid.But this largesse often serves to contribute to the sense that the plot will collapse under Lopez’s ambition. It is, at its highest points, both a study of a mother’s relationship with her son and an exploration of what it is like to live in the looming shadow of fear. However at its lowest, Lopez appears to be a author who is attempting to stuff a novel with more shocking moments than it needs : therefore it is, by the end, overcooked .

A 'Beautiful, Young Woman'  is  a novel seemingly about nothing and yet also about many things, driven not by plot but by the author’s obsession with memory as the plot returns again and again to a series of scenes from an Argentinian man’s childhood. The novel is not set in any particular time : it operates outside of it ,as a rumination on memory, and the narrator is simultaneously both a young boy, terrified  and alone, and the grown man, troubled  by what he can neither remember nor explain. Often deliberately confusing, the novel meanders, focussing on several images of the mother - dedicating pages to her hair, her hands, her mouth-, deliberately dissecting what it is to project an image of extreme femininity : ‘beautiful ,young’ conflicts in the novel with traditional ideas of motherhood. This means it is more like a loose collection of short stories bound together by a question that is even more omnipresent for it’s never being uttered :why? For the ‘beautiful young woman’ of the title is the narrator’s mother, whose abandonment of her child simultaneously defines and fractures him. And this disappearances, although ambiguous, has weighty cultural meaning : despite it’s never being outright stated, it is implied by the end of the book that she is one of the ‘disappeared’ (murdered) men and women who were believed to be left wing ‘enemies’ of the vicious military dictatorship that ruled Argentina during the 1970s and 80s and simply vanished during the so-called ‘Dirty War ’. The mother does frequently disappear on suspicious errands and the unnamed mother and son live alone in a cramped apartment where the doorbell is not to be answered when it rings : the novel often becomes not only a personal attempt to understand the disappearance of an individual, but nods to the nationwide disappearances - ‘“I tried to push myself toward a childhood without deceit, without suspicions, but it could not exist for any of us’. This is furthered by neither mother or son being named, allowing them to become symbolic of the many Argentines who either ‘disappeared’  or had to confront a disappearance.

Starting with several chapters that explore the domestic life of mother and son, furtive phone calls and the mother’s habit of leaving her son alone with near-strangers lend mystery to her entanglements and excitement to the plot .But Lopez goes into no details on these : his narrator again explores the same scenes from earlier in the novel, and the dynamism is lost. It is ultimately Lopez’s prose that saves the reader from boredom later in the novel, as the mother’s disappearance is revealed in the first chapter (during the novel’s very good beginning this heightens the tension, but towards the end removes the incentive to continue).It is intricate and light , poetic and evocative. Take for example, a description of the mother’s physical magnetism ‘ Her skin was pale and opaque; I could almost say it was bluish, and it had a luster that made it unique, of a natural aristocracy, removed from trivialities’. ‘And it is his prose which means the novel is ultimately an argument for the continued translation of Latin American works to English, because Lopez is an author with a clear voice who is enriched, rather than hindered, by translation. 

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