‘The accumulation of time makes strangers of us all’ [book review]

A review of Holiday Heart by Margarita García Robayo, translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Coombe

It sounds like a good beach read, doesn’t it? Holiday Heart. Yet anyone expecting something light and fluffy had better turn elsewhere, because despite its cheerful-sounding title, Margarita García Robayo’s second work to appear in English is anything but upbeat. A searing portrayal of a marriage in its death throes, this novel is brief, biting – and utterly brilliant.

Holiday Heart by Margarita Garcia Robayo

One of Colombia’s foremost contemporary authors, a particular gift that Robayo seems to possess is her ability to write so well about pretty much nothing. This is not to say that there aren’t many subjects explored within her novel, because there are – displacement, human relationships, prejudice, ambition, racism and motherhood are just some of them – but that she is able to take the concept of plot and make it effectively void. I’m generally quite a fan of a stripped-back plot, a barebones structure that gives more room for narrative introspection, but Holiday Heart goes one better. Robayo places her readers both deep within the story and outside it – where I found myself occupying an uncomfortably voyeuristic position – the net result of which is a uniquely immersive and rather intense experience.

The premise of the novel is quite simple: Lucía and Pablo, Colombian immigrants to the USA, have been married for nineteen years – and probably won’t be much longer. Lucía spends the duration of the novel at her parents’ holiday apartment in Miami, while Pablo, who has recently been hospitalised by a condition known as ‘holiday heart’, remains at the family home in New Haven to be cared for by his aunt Lety. Told from both points of view in a mixture of present-day action and memories, Holiday Heart sets before us a none-too-gentle probing of the open wound that is their marriage.

Despite the fact that there are clear moments of hurt for both parties – infidelities, insults, instances of feeling otherwise wronged – the entire novel, and the marriage at its heart, is awash with a sense of resignation. Neither Lucía nor Pablo seems particularly to care any more, whether about the state of their marriage or any of the other hopes, plans and small battles that make up the substance of a life. Having carefully curated an outwardly perfect existence and fought so hard to have children – the couple underwent fertility treatment – Lucía finds herself unable to enjoy spending time with her six-year-old twins, constantly beset by fears of what might happen to them and envying Cindy, her parents’ housekeeper, her easy relationship with them. Pablo, too, seems resigned to most elements of life: his failing health, a job he loathes, an affair with a woman he casually despises, and his early readers’ generally lukewarm reception of the novel he once had ambitions to write. It seeps into everything, this sense of exhausted passivity, in a damning indictment of what can happen not just to a marriage, but also to a lifetime’s accumulated dreams – and, in particular, the American one.

For as much as the novel is about personal relationships, it is also about personal geography. Although both from Colombia and therefore sharing the immigrant experience – and at times a certain snooty disregard for their adopted country – Lucía and Pablo have vastly different approaches to their homeland. While Pablo is altogether more wistful, adopting a melancholic nostalgia that infuriates his wife, Lucía is distressingly clinical, cutting herself off from her roots to such an extent that when her children ask where she comes from, she will only say ‘our house’. Lucía has no need of roots: ‘A homeland is something that moves with you’, she says. Yet her desperate desire for self-containment and the prejudices that come with it seem to have served no purpose beyond distancing her from family, friends, even life itself.

Distance is the operative word in this novel: despite the fact that we are given access to some moments from her characters’ pasts, right from the beginning Robayo gives us the sense of somehow having missed the main event. Just as the novel opens on a beach on the Fourth of July when ‘the fireworks are already over’, so do we as readers get the sense that Lucía and Pablo’s marriage – and any attendant, truly felt emotions of love or even hatred – is already finished. Holiday Heart is a 160-page curtain call, a beautifully insightful capturing of those few seconds before the theatre is plunged into darkness. And just as we readers are kept distant from the main theatrics, so too does Robayo remove herself as an author from the characters she is writing. Events and people are merely laid out before us (perhaps none more so than the scene in which Lucía finds herself alone in a room with young celebrity footballer David Rodríguez) for us to do with as we please. Robayo narrates, of course, but never once does she appear to judge.

This is also true when it comes to thornier matters, such as Lucía and Pablo’s divergent but equally strong prejudices regarding their fellow immigrants from Latin America. The racism and classism inherent in their views can sometimes make for uncomfortable reading, but Robayo handles her subject matter so deftly that it never becomes the basis for a lecture. In the end, Holiday Heart is an unflinching portrayal of two recognisably deficient humans – with all their weaknesses and failures.

It takes a keen sense of observation, incisive wit and serious command of language to achieve the effect that Robayo does with her writing, which is slowly beginning to appear in English thanks to the efforts of Charco Press. Fish Soup, released in translation in 2018, is a blistering, often disturbing collection of stories that has rightly garnered high praise around the world, and Holiday Heart is no different in its sparing construction, taut use of language and biting insights into the human condition. Of course, a lot of my reading experience was down to the exquisite work of translator Charlotte Coombe, who has neatly captured the bitter undertones and subtle ironies intrinsic to Robayo’s writing.

‘Something threatening, but not tragic’, is what Lucía wishes for early on in the novel, hoping that some kind of storm will sweep in on their unplanned holiday to prevent her having to spend time with the children on the beach. It’s also an apt description of the overall feeling I had while reading Holiday Heart, which is as happily far from melodramatic as it gets. It might sound far-fetched to claim that reading a story about the breakdown of a marriage between two ultimately not-very-likeable characters is a hugely enjoyable experience, but this is testament to the immense skill of one of Colombia’s greatest living writers. As far as this summer’s reads go, Holiday Heart is an absolute killer.

Holiday Heart by Margarita García Robayo, translated by Charlotte Coombe, is published by Charco Press on 25 June 2020 and available in paperback or digital. My thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing an advance review copy.

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