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‘The worst of all tsunamis’ [book review]

Here Be Icebergs by Katya Adaui, translated by Rosalind Harvey

‘Family is family,’ says the narrator’s mother in ‘This Is the Man’, the seventh story in Katya Adaui’s Here Be Icebergs and one of the hardest to stomach, if least ambiguous, tales in this fascinating collection. Translated into English by Rosalind Harvey and published by the discerning Charco Press, the Peruvian author’s fractured portrait of families in twelve taut, transient stories is also a study in the insufficiency of language to describe certain experiences, however universal.

Cover image Here Be Icebergs

The statement made by the narrator’s mother – a woman who swallows back her tears and doesn’t just refuse to step in but is actively hateful towards her son when he tells her he has been sexually abused by his older cousin – might sound like an unthinking platitude, but there is perhaps no truer sentence in this book which sets out to probe the painful, messy entanglements we choose to label ‘family’. As a concept, it is hard to find a workable simile or metaphor for family, which is a law unto itself; perhaps the only other possibility is the word Adaui herself offers in the title: iceberg. As her stories show, a lot of what we see of a family is merely the tip, the glittering elements chosen for display above the water, with the rest a darker, hulking mass that lies beneath.

Not only do icebergs appear again and again throughout this collection, but Adaui reflects their structure in the way she has shaped many of her narratives: beginning stories in what seems to be the middle of the action, offering scant context and precious little hope of resolution. Often, a situation only gradually becomes clear as we read – take ‘The Hamberes Twins’, which turns out to be the transcript of an interview between a journalist and a doctor responsible for the titular twins’ euthanasia – while sometimes it remains entirely murky, such as ‘Gardening’, with its threatening overtones, in which a mysteriously incarcerated politician seeks comfort in his prison garden. Adaui does not feel it necessary to give us much background on her characters; instead, we are to puzzle out their situations for ourselves, join the gappy dots to form the best picture we can and observe as they go about a few select moments in their lives.

It is an interesting experiment, this, begging the question of how well we can hope to know another person if their background remains opaque to us (pretty well, it would often seem from these stories). It also allows Adaui to indulge fully in her exploration of language, an element of her narrative style that Rosalind Harvey has conjured magnificently in English – Here Be Icebergs is full of rich seams of language that can be mined for wordplay, striking imagery or economical yet breathtakingly vivid descriptions: ‘Mum was a shout with a cigarette’. As well as icebergs, water in all forms recurs continually (perhaps emphasising the fluid nature of families), as do car journeys, beaches and maps, all of which are brought in at various stages to convey complex relationships or different stages of life. Childhood is ‘the worst of all tsunamis’; adulthood becomes ‘an artificial beach’; a traumatic car journey alters family dynamics and our narrators’ sense of identity in both ‘The Colour of Ice’ and ‘If Anything Ever Happens to Us’. Meanwhile, in ‘Alaska’, a multi-generational family story is told as a series of vignettes preceded by place names – Baltimore, Lima, Pinzolo, Fairbanks – short but essential words forming a literary map without which our understanding of the narrative would be greatly impeded.

The fragmented, incessantly shifting nature of Adaui’s fiction is somewhat discomfiting, yet her evident attention to detail ensures that the reader is safe, certain that every word is there to serve a purpose, able to concentrate on finding the meaning at their core. Whether this is easy to unpack is another matter entirely, but reading – and perhaps rereading – these stories offers unexpected pleasures: the love that seeps through in ‘The Hamberes Twins’ and ‘We, the Shipwrecked’, the sense of potential redemption at the end of ‘The Colour of Ice’. Surrealist elements – most striking in ‘Where the Hunts Take Place’, in which a family is plagued by an invisible fruit-throwing vandal – also form a pleasing juxtaposition with the very real-world elements, some specific to Peru, others more universal, that form the backdrops to these stories.

Intensely thought, often wounded, yet still somehow playful in the evident delight it takes in language, Here Be Icebergs explores the bruised and bruising business of family, in which people all too often hurt one another through neglect or deliberate harm. It is also, however, about our need for connection at all costs, about the hope that allows us to believe things will get better. Although there is a sense of inevitability to many of their situations, Adaui’s characters do still have agency – many allow their longest-standing relationships to inform but not define them as they continue trying to negotiate those icebergs. And, surely, in a book that pays such close attention to language, it can be no accident that the final word of the final story is ‘home’.

Here Be Icebergs by Katya Adaui, translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey, is published by Charco Press. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.


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