By Monica Ojeda
Translated by Sarah Booker
264 p. Coffee House. Paper, $16.95.
Four teenage girls – Ximena, Analía, Natalia, and Fiorella – at the heart of Ojeda’s strange, twisted novel “Jawbone” seem to have everything for them: They’re rich, pampered, and posted. enrolled in an exclusive all-girls school in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Then why should they suffer and be tortured like this, under the tug of their group’s inseparable leaders, Annelise and Fernanda?
Meeting in an abandoned building after school, the girls meet one after another with daring acts: reading “creepypasta” ghost stories on the web, jumping down stairs, mutilating themselves. Is it all part of Annelise’s sick vision – or is it a religion or sect? – the “cosmic horror” of life, the symbol of which is “a jaw that chews through all fears.” But if they push each other to the edge of the abyss, they make their teacher more miserable. Miss Clara (“Latin Madame Bovary”) was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, ever since she was taken hostage by two students a few years earlier. For Miss Clara, the girls are out to “eat the flesh of her power.” Their very presence was an assault on her senses, with her body “smelling like sweat and menstruation”.
Ojeda, who has been called one of Granta’s finest young Spanish-speaking novelists, writes with a polyphony, which Booker translates quickly. Her language is, like youth itself, loose and excessive, full of dramatic shifts and capable of both beauty and horror. “Adolescence turns us into werewolves, hyenas or reptiles,” Annelise declared. Meanwhile, Fernanda revealed her darkest fear to her therapist: “Anne once told me something that really scared me because I thought it was true: One day, We will be like our mothers.”
WOMEN RUN ON THE MOUNTAIN
By Yuko Tsushima
Translated by Geraldine Harcourt
275 pages New York Book Review. Paper, $17.95.
Big changes are coming for 21-year-old Takiko Odaka, who at the beginning of “Woman Running in the Mountains” is on her way to a Tokyo hospital to give birth. The baby’s father is no longer in the picture and Takiko is determined to raise the child alone. It’s a bold and challenging decision for someone who doesn’t feel like he’s drifting away in life. “She has no particular hope for her own future,” Tsushima asserts realistically. “She wanted to leave her family. … The baby will at least give her a chance to leave the house. ”
Takiko has good reason to want to escape – her father is a physically abusive drunk; Her mother constantly pressed her to have an abortion. When the baby was born, Takiko was fascinated by his son’s “moment-by-moment life” but also had a vague sense of “self-fatigue and disappointment”. She roams the city with her newborn, rides aimlessly on buses, and daydreams on park benches. She meets an ordinary lover; she yearns to “remember the softness of her body”.
Her son becomes a source of unspeakable joy, though something of a mystery remains. When Takiko meets Kambayashi, a soft-spoken gardener, her complex emotions only intensify, and the novel really takes off. First published in 1980 and subtly translated by Harcourt, the book chronicles the intimate, physical and existential transformations of a single young mother. “She’s being told something through her body,” thought Takiko. “She wants to hear.”
HISTORY OF HUMAN
By Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu
301 pages Catalyst. Paper, $17.99.
Emil Coetzee was 50 years old and “still a mystery to himself” when the war in a fictional southern African country ended in 1979. Coetzee – who made his debut in his first work Zimbabwean writer Ndlovu, “The Theory of Flight” – was a white man considered an “authority” for Africans. He was the head of the Internal Affairs Organization, which, according to him, had become an important tool in the colonial government’s “bush wars”. (For the people of Africa, it was a “struggle for liberation.”) But with the domination of the Black majority imminent, “winds of change have driven people like him to back to the relic of a bygone era”.
He wondered how history would remember him, as he looked back on his life, often in a profound, dramatic way: his childhood spent in beloved veld; its prestigious boarding school, where “boys become the men of history”; his scandalous affairs with the wives of his best friends. Throughout his life, he has searched for a cause worthy of “real men” who built empires, yet “all his life he seems to be only able to grasp everything outside.”
At first, his role in Domestic Affairs fulfills a sense of duty. By following the details of African lives, he believes he is contributing to the permanence of their own history. But as the fight progresses, it cannot be ignored that he has blood on his hands and that his life is built on lies. “For the first time,” Ndlovu wrote, “Emil understood that there was something about African life that, though not obvious to him, still existed.” How can a man know so little about himself – and even less about others?
WIND STORAGE IN THE BRIDGE
By Lidia Jorge
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
and Annie McDermott
511 pages Live. $30.
“The Wind Whistling in the Cranes,” by Portuguese master Jorge (thoroughly translated by Jull Costa and McDermott), also offers a sweeping, sweeping look at the last century. Here, the action plays out on Portugal’s south coast, where the Leandro family’s cannery, founded in 1908, had better times. But after the Carnation Revolution of 1974, which toppled the country’s fascist regime and led to the independence of the African colonies, Leandros realized the futility of “fighting the winds of history” ” and the factory was assigned to its workers.
But history works in strange ways: A decade later, the dilapidated business is returned to Leandros. By 1994, a family from Cape Verde, the Matas, who were living there, enlisted to protect the complex. Leandros and Matas’ intertwining story follows “its own zigzag course, preparing for its surprise”. After Regina, Leandro’s matriarch, is found dead outside the gate one August day, simmering suspicions and resentments between the two families – and within each family – emerge before their eyes.
The novel moves rhythmically, as if oscillating under the blazing sun. Milene, Regina’s niece, falls in love with Antonino Mata, who works on the town’s sky-high crane team. Rumors and rumors spread like wildfire. Who is the witness? Whose story can be trusted? It is an “allegory of life, of the struggle between the rich and the poor, between one race and another”. Even the trees and the surrounding landscape – “the dumb, of course, have knowledge and memory” – have their opinion.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/18/books/review/monica-ojeda-yuko-tsushima-siphiwe-ndlovu-lidia-jorge.html New International Fiction Books, From Ecuador to Zimbabwe