Ian Mond Reviews Eartheater by Dolores Reyes

Eartheater, Dolores Reyes (HarperVia 978-0062987730, $24.99, 224pp, hc) November 2020.

Eartheater (translated by Julia Sanches) is a strong debut from Dolores Reyes, the second Argentine author I’m reviewing this month. The novel is set in an impoverished barrio in present-day Argentina, told from the perspective of a young woman (she’s never named) burdened with visions of the lost and murdered. On the day her mother is laid to rest, the young woman eats the dirt around the burial site and is struck with an image of her father murdering her mother: “I see Papa, hands like my hands, arms strong for fists, snagging your heart and your flesh like a fishhook.” Word of her talent, however, gets out when the young woman’s favourite teacher goes missing and she accurately, and rather tragically, predicts the location of Señorita Ana’s corpse. The next day, cans and bottles filled with soil and the promise of money appear at the doorstep of the young woman’s house, each a desperate cry for help. Haunted by what she has already seen, including the ghost of Señorita Ana who visits the young woman’s dreams most nights, she begins to despise the bottles: “They weighed on me more than ever…. The world must be much larger than I’d imagined for so many people to have disappeared in it.” And yet, whether it’s the frantic pleas of a mother whose son has gone missing or the quiet appeal of a police officer in search of his cousin, the young woman finds herself drawn back to the earth.

Without ever being gratuitous, Eartheater is a story that deals with the sexual violence perpetrated on women in Argentina. As a feminist and activist, I’m sure Reyes is reacting to the country’s systemic misogyny, but more specifically the recent rise in sexual assault and femicides pre-COVID. Violence toward women is not unique to Argentina; still, setting the novel in a slum where surviving day to day is an end in itself, the sheer scope of the tragedy, the almost daily kidnappings and rapes, is hard to fully comprehend if, like me, you enjoy a neat, middle-class lifestyle. The novel, though, is as much about trauma as it is about sexual violence. The young woman’s reluctance to assist isn’t the act of a flawed and selfish person, but someone who, at a young age, and without the faculties to adequately pro­cess it, has seen the most terrible things. Her brief love affair with the young cop Ezequiel is an attempt to feel a sense of normality. There’s a heartbreaking moment where she wishes she could return to a time when it was just her “and my brother eating sausages on the living room sofa, my only worry making sure they didn’t overcook, and that Walter didn’t get ketchup and mayo all himself.” On top of all this is Reyes’s beautiful prose. The novel’s opening section that precedes Part One, describing the burial of the young woman’s mother, is as lyrical and evocative as it is upsetting:

To watch her fall quietly into a gaping pit in the graveyard, in the back, where they bury the poor. With no tombstones, or plaques. A parched mouth that devours her near the reedbed. The earth, open like a wound. And there I am, trying to stop her, with the strength of my arms, with this body that can’t even cover the span of that hole. Mama falls anyhow.

Eartheater is a powerful debut that tackles the challenging, distressing sub­ject of sexual violence with a nuance and humanity that is deeply felt.

Ian Mond loves to talk about books. For eight years he co-hosted a book podcast, The Writer and the Critic, with Kirstyn McDermott. Recently he has revived his blog, The Hysterical Hamster, and is again posting mostly vulgar reviews on an eclectic range of literary and genre novels. You can also follow Ian on Twitter (@Mondyboy) or contact him at mondyboy74@gmail.com.

This review and more like it in the December 2020 issue of Locus.

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