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‘Hell was inside me’ [book review]

A review of Other People’s Beds by Anna Punsoda, translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem

With Other People’s Beds, her first work of fiction, Catalan author Anna Punsoda offers us a tale of the body. In the smarting, spiky prose of her first-person narrative voice, she explores what it is to exist physically in the world, to what point the limits of the body – particularly the female body – extend, and what impact this can have on our inner, psychological life. An assured debut that is in many ways uncompromising, yet not without a glimmer of redemption, Other People’s Beds appears in a punchy English translation by Mara Faye Lethem and forms a notable addition to the catalogue at Fum d’Estampa Press.

Cover image Other People's Beds

Driving back to Barcelona from a visit to her ailing mother, Claustre, a young woman from Lleida, pulls over at a roadside inn to calm herself down and get a bite to eat. Rattled by whatever has taken place at her mother’s bedside, she walks into the restaurant and encounters a former classmate, a girl whose life was marked by childhood tragedy and to whom Claustre hasn’t spoken in many years. After their meal, however, she finds herself talking, ‘explaining my life to a very tall woman who was often mistaken for the dead’. This life story becomes the substance of the novel, a harrowing tale of a childhood and coming-of-age which, she realises, ‘I hadn’t begun to understand or digest . . . until I was far from Lleida and the house I had grown up in.’

At under a hundred pages, Other People’s Beds is not exactly a long novel, yet Punsoda deftly works in a number of key events and relationships that give us the feeling of knowing Claustre well. As might be expected when talking to a virtual stranger, she gives an account of herself that is roughly chronological, beginning with her existence as ‘little mosquito’, daughter of an alcoholic father and emotionally unavailable mother. ‘At seven years old I already knew that in this world you can be anything, anything at all, except a burden,’ she recalls; not only is she offered little to no protection by her mother and grandmother, she has to bear the emotional weight of their distress at her father’s behaviour. When Claustre is abused by her uncle, it sets off a chain of violent physical reactions that will permanently alter her relationship with her body and lead her through a series of lonely, often damaging encounters in the beds of others.

Graphic depictions of an eating disorder and the abuse – both sexual and psychological – experienced by its characters mean that Other People’s Beds is by no means an easy read. At times shocking, it is made all the more powerful by the strength of Claustre’s voice, which has been skilfully translated by Mara Faye Lethem into an English that is sharp yet brittle, self-assured while somehow reticent. Claustre is upfront in many aspects of her story, detailing how she went about purging her body until ‘hell was inside me’, yet she also seems deliberately to withhold some elements, adopting the same cagey attitude she does around friends and family. This lack of communication is twofold, as it also applies to her relationship with herself – for many years she has been unable to acknowledge what was done to her, or to escape the feelings of shame wrongfully pressed on to her by her mother. As a result, much of Other People’s Beds reads like a struggle, a desperate fight to escape the prison of the past.

For all that her subject matter is troubling, Punsoda handles the novel with skill. At some points verging on icy, at others revealing brief, impassioned outbursts, her prose is consistently uncluttered, not given to overuse of adjectives or long descriptive passages. Significant moments are accompanied by unusual yet salient details, such as the house in which Claustre first has sex with a boyfriend: ‘dark and filled with paintings of lemons and people practicing extinct trades’. A touch of black humour frequently edges into the narrative, a bitter irony that adds to the weight of the words – though short, Other People’s Beds conveys just as much as many novels three times its length.

Punsoda is a print and audio-visual journalist who studied philosophy, and the range of disciplines in her background shines through in this powerful novel. With each word carefully chosen – a meticulousness around language that has been followed by Lethem – the story also follows a satisfying arc, bringing both reader and narrator back almost to the starting point, though this time with newfound knowledge. In retelling her story to another, Claustre has begun the important process of digestion, loosening the tight bonds between food and memory, taking steps to soothe her scars and put more miles between present and past.

As Claustre tells us right at the beginning of her story, ‘we only really grieve our own defeat’. Other People’s Beds is about many things, but not a defeated woman. With its bold voice, confident handling of gruelling subjects, and acute awareness of its own vulnerability, this is a novel about the limits of mind and body, the intense strength and fragility that comes with being human, and how we might use an act as simple as speaking to find our liberation.

Other People’s Beds by Anna Punsoda, translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem, is published by Fum d’Estampa Press. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.

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