Paulina Flores

Translated by Megan McDowell

Published by Oneworld 7 November 2019

272pp, paperback, £12.99

Reviewed by Alison Burns

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One of Paulina Flores’s many striking characters, Denise, in ‘Lucky Me’ (a lonely, dissatisfied and voyeuristic librarian who once dreamed of becoming a photographer for National Geographic), remembers walking around her neighbourhood with her camera strapped across her body ‘as if she were carrying a revolver under her arm’. It is a wonderfully apt image for what this fine young Chilean writer is doing here, in nine powerful short stories about day-dreams, disillusionment and retaliation.

Named one of the Ten Best Books of the Year by El Pais, the title work in this debut collection won the Robert Bolaño Short Story Prize.  Translator Megan McDowell has translated books by many contemporary Spanish and Latin American authors including the Man Booker International shortlisted Samantha Schweblin (Fever Dream).

In the opening (title) story, ‘Humiliation’, two young sisters accompany their adored unemployed father to a casting call. The older of the two, Simona, has been helping him look through the classifieds.  She enjoys being part of ‘the solemnity of adult conflicts’ but, on this occasion, inadvertently contributes to her father’s humiliation  –  a word she has heard her mother use.

In ‘Teresa’, a casual flirtation evokes a past incident involving an assumed name.  Beneath the ‘neon shins’ of a sign advertising stockings, the false Teresa makes love with a man whose young daughter she thinks may be wanting to escape.

In the impressively dramatic ‘Talcahuano’, four dirt-poor young-teenage boys hooked on The Smiths plan a complex musical heist requiring training in ninjutsu, the art of stealth.  Where they live, ‘this ruinous place we call home’, is a depressed fishing port near a naval base.  The laying-off of one their fathers leads to disillusionment so complete that the narrator (the ringleader’s serene and faithful sidekick) leaves home for good.

These are stealthy stories, all in their different ways quite shocking. Here, very definitely, the ‘sins’ of fathers and mothers are visited upon their daughters and sons.  Parental sacrifice, failure, disappointment and compromise are seen through unforgiving eyes and tracked through their side-effects on the next generation. A young woman abandoned by her severe lover returns to the mother whose judgements have always crushed her; she longs to turn into a laurel bush, or to sink like a stone.  Another yearns to be self-sufficient but cannot escape memories of total security at her great-aunt’s side.  A ten-year-old raised in chaos grows more secure in a caring routine but is obliged by loyalty to throw his life away.  His are what feel like Paulina Flores’s last words on the subject  –  at least, for the moment: ‘All I can do is believe that every detail means something…to try to fit  –  or force  –  each piece into place, so everything achieves its meaning.’










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