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‘We can be so many things’ [book review]

A review of Violeta Among the Stars by Dulce Maria Cardoso, translated from the Portuguese by Ángel Gurría-Quintana

Long before there was Ducks, Newburyport, there was Violeta Among the Stars. Originally published in 2005 but only now translated into English by Ángel Gurría-Quintana, Dulce Maria Cardoso’s experimental novel is a masterclass in getting under the skin of a life. Yet while the comparison with Lucy Ellmann’s Booker-shortlisted tome is perhaps the most obvious – Ducks, Newburyport does in fact contain the occasional full stop, whereas Violeta Among the Stars truly is one long sentence, its many clauses broken only by commas – Cardoso’s work has a different quality, a seething anger and terrible sadness that make it as painful as it is compelling to read.

Cover image Violeta Among the Stars

Though its title – in English at least – may sound dreamy, Violeta Among the Stars begins violently, crashing into the reader’s consciousness in the middle of a sentence. The narrator of the novel, Violeta, has veered off the motorway while driving in a storm and now, hanging upside down in her crumpled vehicle, begins to contemplate her life as she drifts towards death. Starting with the events of that night and reaching ever deeper into the past, her mind runs through various topics – her job, her relationships, childhood traumas and shattered dreams – endlessly looping back to certain events or phrases and becoming increasingly wild as she slowly slips away. Yet while Violeta’s loosening hold on life is tangible, Cardoso’s grip on her novel certainly is not: every single word has its place here, and the wall of language with which we are met carries a singular emotional weight.

Violeta, who early on tells us that she likes to make her name into a riddle for strangers to guess the answer to – ‘I share my name with a flower and also a colour’ – is an overweight, middle-aged woman who travels around selling waxing products. She is proud of her expertise in this area, of her ability to correctly gauge her customers’ needs and charm them into buying from her, and seems, too, to be unashamed of her body, despite hearing herself ridiculed by the other customers at a motorway service station. When thinking of others, she tends to be contemptuous: Ângelo, the man in her life, is a small-time comedian she regards as unfunny and unsuccessful, while Dora, her daughter, who seems content with her lot in life as a supermarket cashier, is a figure to be picked at and argued with. Yet after only a few pages, this hard veneer begins to slip. As the story spirals on, we learn that Violeta drinks too much, worries that her customers only purchase her products out of pity, loves her daughter – ‘the most perfect part of me’ – beyond all measure and fears her leaving, and is scarred by her own upbringing with a cold, critical mother and unfaithful father.

Despite the various elements of wretchedness in her life, Violeta’s story is far from a catalogue of woes: she is a tough, sharp-minded figure who knows what she wants and is determined to chase it, no matter the obstacles placed in her way. All this comes across rather obliquely, as the rambling stream of consciousness is never allowed to slip, but as we spend more time with her, Violeta’s personality comes through strongly in Cardoso’s careful choice of words. Certain pearls of wisdom to which Violeta holds fast are peppered liberally throughout the novel, but many have a distinct air of melancholy about them – ‘we can be so many things’, she thinks at several points, despite the fact that so much of her life seems to have been beyond her control; or then there is the repeated refrain, ‘when we are given one life we don’t know how to live another’. Particularly moving is the fact that while the reader is aware that Violeta is close to death, she herself continues to think about the future, with phrases like ‘from today everything will be different’ surfacing continually throughout the text. Though readers may start out wary of her slightly belligerent tone, by the time the novel reaches its final, broadly looping stages, Violeta has become a character it is impossible not to care about.

In investigating a seemingly ordinary – not to say insignificant – life in this manner, Cardoso is also able to explore several bigger topics, particularly motherhood and female desire. Violeta’s night-time escapades to lorry parks, where she has sex with unknown men in driver’s cabs or on the dirty floors of toilet blocks, are on one level deeply upsetting, but on the other contain a strange sense of empowerment: Violeta is entirely unapologetic, believing that in acting the part of an uncertain, fearful woman she gains the upper hand. Unsettling on a different level are her thoughts on the family’s maid, though the class distinction and her dismissive attitude seem also to be largely copied from her unfeeling mother. As a piece of social commentary, Violeta Among the Stars is insightful, suggesting that we can never truly know another person or the circumstances that led them to where they are – as, indeed, we may struggle to know ourselves.

As she goes back over the events of her life, Violeta muses on how ‘it is undoubtedly the details that keep us attached to stories’ – a sentiment that Cardoso seems to feel strongly, considering her attachment to motifs that repeat throughout the novel. These phrases, often just a handful of words, are not only anchors for Violeta’s swirling mind, but also for the reader, helping us negotiate a narrative that could easily threaten to become overwhelming. Translator Ángel Gurría-Quintana, who has done a remarkable job of maintaining the rhythm of the text, has largely rendered these into English but kept the very occasional word in Portuguese or French, just one of the many characteristic uses of language that build on one another to create Violeta’s memorable voice.

A veritable torrent of words that unleash on the reader a formidable mind, Violeta Among the Stars is a novel that aches with crushed hopes, everyday cruelty and personal disappointment – but also with boundless love. In looking deep into a mind on the verge of being snuffed out, it somehow manages to be a celebration of life and language: exhilarating, experimental and thoroughly extraordinary.

Violeta Among the Stars by Dulce Maria Cardoso, translated by Ángel Gurría-Quintana, is published by MacLehose Press in digital and hardback, made possible with funding from the EU’s Creative Europe programme. Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for so kindly providing a digital review copy.


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