‘Lost when she woke up to die’ [book review]

A review of Dead Girls by Selva Almada, translated from the Spanish by Annie McDermott

Some books are hard to write about. Selva Almada’s Dead Girls is one of them. Hard to write about, and in many ways hard to read as well – though this is purely in terms of the content with which it deals. (And, in fact, if it weren’t testing to read at times, Almada wouldn’t have done her job well.) Exquisite prose that vibrates with a deep, melodious rage, Dead Girls follows a path all its own and in doing so becomes essential reading.

Dead Girls Selva Almada

Dead Girls is a book about femicide. It is perhaps important to note that this particular word finds considerably more usage and resonance in Argentina – Almada’s home and the country in which the book was first published in 2014, under the title Chicas muertas – than it does in much of the English-speaking world. At least in recent times, Argentina has been suffering from a disproportionately high number of femicide cases every year, with close on 300 female deaths through male violence in 2018 alone. Nowadays, thanks in part to the coining of words like femicide, there is a lot more conversation around this topic, but as Almada so powerfully shows, it is an endemic problem – and not just in Argentina, but across the entire world. Setting out on the trail of three young women murdered in the 1980s, she weaves a tale that is harrowing and deeply personal, a story infused with its Argentinian setting but that really could have taken place anywhere.

‘I think we have to find a way of reconstructing how the world saw them,’ Almada explains, setting out her reasons for writing Dead Girls. In reconstructing the main figures in her story, in bringing them into focus on the page, these three young women cease to be merely ‘dead girls’, becoming instead living, breathing human beings. Girls who studied or were proud of their jobs, girls who were good daughters, loving sisters, capable mothers. Girls who loved their boyfriends, girls who got mixed up with the wrong crowd. Girls who laughed and danced and dreamed and hoped and whose lives were cut cruelly and painfully short. Andrea Danne, stabbed as she slept; María Luisa Quevedo, raped and strangled, her body dumped; Sarita Mundín, cause of death unknown, her decomposing remains washed up on a riverbank several months after her disappearance. Although there were plenty of suspects in each case – sometimes even hauled in for questioning many years after the fact – no one was ever convicted of their murders.

A lot of painstaking research went into the making of Dead Girls: visits to the girls’ friends and families, trips to the towns in which they lived, the places their bodies were found. The difficulties involved – both practical and emotional – are made abundantly clear by the personal stories Almada relates, including her repeated attempts to speak to the older brother of María Luisa, a journey through small-town Argentina that at times strays into the territory of the absurd. At other times she adopts slightly more unorthodox approaches, including visiting ‘the Señora’, a medium she hopes will allow her to connect with the girls’ spirits. Almada herself seems sceptical of this method at first – I’ll admit that I was too, extremely so – yet she persists in her visits, writing about the results with such clarity of vision that the encounters never become hackneyed or sensational. More than anything, I found, they contained a note of despair.

Figures like the Señora are essential for a book that doesn’t let itself be easily defined. Depending on where you look, you’ll find Dead Girls described sometimes as a novel, at other times as non-fiction, by publisher Charco Press as ‘journalistic fiction’. Seamlessly blending memoir with investigative reporting, Almada describes her search for the truth about three girls’ lives and deaths, the impact their stories had on her own life, the few facts that are known about them and the many that aren’t. There are several twists to the tale – I won’t spoil it by revealing them – and Almada continually inserts fictionalised passages into the gaps that she finds. She imagines how her subjects might have felt as they lived, as they died. ‘Andrea must have felt lost when she woke up to die,’ she writes in one paragraph I found particularly moving. ‘. . . Lost, dazed by the drumming of the rain and the wind that snapped the thinnest branches of the trees in the yard, hazy with sleep, utterly disoriented.’

As seen in her mesmerising novel The Wind That Lays Waste, Almada is an expert at using few words to create an astonishing sense of place. She excels particularly at crafting atmospheres that are vaguely threatening: walks through patches of deserted wasteland, two girls trapped in a car with a suddenly hostile man, even the deadbeat setting of a small-town bus station – all are described in Dead Girls with such alarming accuracy as to make the reader shiver. There is no doubt that Almada is playing on the subject of her book here, including descriptive passages that are deliberately noir in style, yet never once did I feel I was being taken for a ride. Of course my assessment can only ever be subjective, but I always felt that I was aware of what was fiction and what was fact.

It is in part her evocative writing that makes Dead Girls such a hypnotic read, but more still to do with the urgent quality of Almada’s prose. In the author’s note at the beginning of the book she explains that while the research took her three years, the writing only required three months; the ‘process was sustained and painful’. This is very much in evidence on the page – the words seem to flow from some unseen source, a wellspring of undiluted rage that has bubbled over into this extraordinary work of literature. ‘All the responsibility for what happened to us was laid at our feet,’ she tells us as she introduces the book, referring to a state of being that must surely resonate with women everywhere. We are not safe, and yet this is our fault. Dead Girls is a fierce rejection of this twisted logic, an urgent attempt to redress the balance.

Writing about traumatic events is by no means easy; translating such writing can be even harder. As well as capturing this sense of total urgency, the anger that simmers beneath every page, translator Annie McDermott has done an outstanding job of conveying the nuances in Almada’s descriptions of her subjects’ lives and deaths. There is an entire spectrum of emotion contained within this book: grief, horror, fear, frustration, despair, doubt and brief glimpses of hope. To transport all this in such a way that the reader can’t help but be caught on the tide is no mean feat, and McDermott deserves much praise for what must have been a challenging and complex translation process.

While Dead Girls fails to provide the answers – don’t come here looking for a neatly wrapped-up thriller or true-crime mystery – it does achieve a form of closure. In writing so intimately and beautifully about these girls, women she never knew, Almada does more than just honour their lives: through its very existence, this book is cause for hope. Hope that other murdered women will be talked about in the same way, not simply swept under the cold earth of a cemetery; hope that living men and women will read their stories and have their eyes opened, that this is one of the first steps towards a conversation that will not fade to nothing. Involving herself, her family and friends at every turn, Almada makes her writing deeply personal and so draws the reader into the story as well. Whatever our gender, each of us is implicated somehow: either we have been victims ourselves, or at some point we have looked away.

Some books are hard to write about. Some books are hard to read. Some books have the power to incite a change. Selva Almada’s Dead Girls is one of these.

Dead Girls by Selva Almada is published by Charco Press on 3 September 2020, available in digital and paperback. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.

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