Set in Argentina in the late 1970’s, and the United States in the early 2000’s, the chapters outline a time of political tumult and its aftermath in Argentina, through the rise of a military junta and a notorious period called the “Dirty War” in which many regime opponents are jailed or disappeared. While the novel’s cover description describes the use of magical realism, the inherited prophetic capabilities of some of the characters did not reach the otherworldly heights of that narrative technique as seen in the work of other South American authors. The capacity to glance briefly into the future and possibly to tweak the outcome of events allowed the mystery and thriller elements of the novel to involve readers by anticipating moments of crisis.
The story is narrated by Julia, one of the “seers,” who is educated into the mysteries of her gift by her aunt, who is similarly blessed. It appears the gift must be used with courage and compassion or it will be taken away. Julia falls in love with a young man, Theo, who is involved in protests against government corruption in Argentina. When Julia and Theo are separated, jailed, beaten and tortured for their resistance to the regime, one of Julia’s visions suggests a moment when escape might be attempted.
Years later, Julia will discover what happened to Theo while she spent time raising their child. Julia and Theo get back together, but they both have changed much in the intervening years. The book opens on Julia contemplating the meaning of one vision suggesting Theo is romantically involved with someone new.
The exquisite use of language and the precise observations about the nature of marriage and motherhood raise this book to the level of literature. We are treated to a the tiny changes in a husband’s habits when he takes a lover, how a child abused at school behaves when he returns home in the afternoon, how a distracted but loving mother acts when her child insists on playing, reading, or stories to stretch the limits of bedtime.
Years after escaping Argentina, Julia returns to Buenos Aires to meet with the newly-established Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team:
"She was too early. She was tempted to get a coffee and do a bit of exploring. A swarm of stalls offering photocopying, printing, and binding services, stores selling electronics, and an invasive billboard gave the area the feel of a bazaar. Pedestrians and cars moved around amid the noise and the pollution. Julia pushed open the heavy wooden door and entered the [dilapidated building covered with graffiti]. Inside, the air was cool and the noise from the street was muffled. Light filtered into the lobby through etched glass panels. Facing her was an old-fashioned cage elevator with a folding metal door, which didn't look entirely reassuring. She was overcome by the desire to leave without going any farther."The sophistication of the novel lies in its assumption that readers will accept that some mysteries, just as in life, will never be answered. The novel also raises questions of accountability, retribution, and recompense for abuses suffered under a regime gone mad, and encourages readers to imagine how one would react when confronted with a perpetrator of those crimes, sometimes years after the fact, when one is living a new life in a different country. Betancourt manages to present important ethical and political dilemmas and make them thrilling.
Betancourt was a presidential candidate in Colombia’s 2002 national election when she was taken prisoner by FARC, a guerilla organization ostensibly promoting an agrarian and anti-imperialist platform but operating by extortion, kidnap, illegal taxation, and drug sales. Betancourt was held captive six and a half years in the jungles of Colombia until a covert military operation freed her, three American contractors, and eleven Colombian police in 2008. Betancourt wrote a nonfiction memoir about her ordeal demonstrating her ravishing literary talent, called Even Silence has an End (2008). Her first memoir, Until Death Do Us Part: My Struggle to Reclaim Colombia (1989), was a bestseller in France.
Betancourt's talk at Vanderbilt University in 2010 gives listener's some idea of her hostage ordeal, what she learned about herself and about human beings in duress. Those insights is what she is able to convey in this novel.
You can buy this book here: Tweet