I think this beautiful novel was sent to me at the right time. Two things have happened lately. I’ve had a relapse of my long term illness Multiple Sclerosis, and it has affected my sight, balance and vertigo. Secondly, I’ve been reading several books where the central theme is that even small lives can be extraordinary or have a huge effect in the world. I think the two things are linked, because I’m a big believer in finding the right book at the right time. When I don’t have a groaning TBR bookcase, I tend to choose my reading very emotionally. What do I feel like reading? I can’t understand readers who are able to read books in chronological order, whatever the subject or however they’re feeling. I really have to be in the mood. It took me several years to read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, but when I did I absolutely loved it. I think this is the reason many bookworms have buckling shelves – we know we’ll want to read that new book, just not right now. Well, this book was the right one for right now – a look at how the ordinary life of one woman, becomes extraordinary because of the way it is told. A reminder for me that though I may live a quiet and often restricted existence, I can still have an impact on the world.
This particular novel is unique, because it carries a whole lifetime suspended in a single moment. Violeta is drunk and in utter despair when she crashes her car. As she’s thrown around in the car, her seat belt locks and she’s left suspended both physically and metaphorically. As she hangs between life and death, memories of her life flash before her all at once and in no particular order. Memories of her distant mother collide with her everyday life on the road selling waxing products. She remembers moments fumbling on toilet floors with truck drivers she barely knows at motorway service stations. A thousand seemingly ordinary encounters pass through her mind and make up a life. Her past comes up for scrutiny, culminating in how she sacrificed the dreams she had for adolescent relationships that simply let her down. Through this poetic meditation, an ordinary life becomes epic.
This whole book is written as a stream of consciousness so don’t expect tidy chronological memories or carefully constructed sentences. This is one, long paragraph without punctuation, cleverly keeping the reader hanging in the same position as the author. This is a raw examination of the ‘self’, how it is constructed and whether it is ever a constant, unchanging thing. Or is it more like Frankenstein’s creature? Hastily stitched from parts of our parents, our experiences, and those things we like and dislike. An ever changing collage rather than a single, fixed identity. Memories weave in and out of each other, past and present collide and sentences drift away unfinished. We are listening in on Violeta’s inner thoughts so they are never censored or tidy. This is a troubled woman. She’s at war with her family, her own body and her own anonymous sexual conquests. Yet, even though there’s no real structure or plot, we start to understand her. She has an incredible sense of humour and there is a feminist element too, particularly the way we wage war on body hair – Violeta sells waxing products. There’s also the open expression of sexuality, when young she would experiment with local boys and age now visits truck stops for anonymous sexual with strangers. What is transgressive about these encounters, is that the narrator’s active sex life should not be available to a fat woman. I’m a bigger woman, we’re not meant to be attractive in our imperfect bodies. Yet, just like Violeta, I’ve never had a problem finding someone to have sex with. Men are not meant to want sex with fat women, but the truth is, they do.
However, it’s not just other people and our identity under scrutiny. The physical world and concept of time also shifts around us; the reader’s perception of this world expands alongside Violeta. She stands beside us. She experiences the world around her as layers of time, shown in time-slip moments such as when she recalls the previous day’s meal at a restaurant, but simultaneously remembers visiting the shop when it was a hair salon, alongside her mother. Places and people exist simultaneously in the past and future, something I can definitely understand as I get older. Violeta awoke a fire in me. I had a few moments full of emotion and kinship for those bigger women who accept being the butt of a joke, feel inadequate or even hate their bodies so much they accept the abuse meted out by others. There are elements of the book that are painful, especially when we read about her childhood. This goes some way to explaining the detachment we see in the interactions with her own daughter, highlighting the concept of inter-generational pain. I’ve never read a book like this one, especially the structure and the leaps from poetry to philosophy. It reminds me of another book I recently read, where the author attempts to grasp what it is to be a human being. A wonderful, occasionally dark, but unusual look at life from the perspective of someone whose life is, quite literally, hanging in the balance.
I should have stayed at home, I should have stayed at home, I should have stayed at home, for some time, seconds, hours, I can do nothing,
suddenly I stop