17 December, 2014

The Sad Passions by Veronica Gonzalez Pena (Simon, Central Library)

A few months ago a friend mentioned to me that The Sad Passions by Veronica Gonzalez Pena was the best book she’d read all year. Along with that evocative title, and the fact it was set in New Mexico, my interest was piqued.

Before I’d even begun reading it I was struck by the Francesca Woodman photograph on the cover. Like the novels title (and, as it transpired, like the prose inside), the cover image contained riveting contradictions. It was both tragic and romantic, seductive and chilling. In this haunting black and white picture a woman hangs by her arms to the top of a door frame. It is hard not to think of suicide by hanging. Her face is partially hidden behind her arm. One senses she is hiding from the cameras gaze - in the process of disappearing herself. Yet the woman’s arms are shaped into half an ‘X’ - is it possible that we are not looking at an image symbolic of self-harm, of self-disappearing, but rather some kind of symbolic crucifixion of the spirit by the world that lies outside the cameras frame? And in another way there is a semblance of hope – this woman is hanging on for dear life: suspended between what is left of her existence and inevitable death, between memory and the present, between the spirit world and the physical world. She does not want to leave the physical world behind – not completely.

These multiple strains are embodied by one of the 6 narrators of this book in particular. Julia, one of 5 sisters, is the one sent away to live with a distant uncle by their increasingly dysfunctional mother. Julia is suspended between a desire to locate the identity that her banishment robbed her of, and the equally strong desire to forget about the existence of her family all together. All the sisters are, in different ways, suffering a primal ache born of this lack – the lack of a mother capable of expressing the love she does indeed have in her heavy heart; the lack of having a father who could be as much of a Dad as a rambling, promiscuous fair-weather friend; the lack of having Julia, the sister who was disappeared for reasons that are slowly, expertly revealed as the novel winds on, switching between voices, and between the varied tones and perspectives of the same pulsing, passionate, interminable sadness.

With each new chapter a different sister is introduced, and then, eventually, we meet their mother. We become privy to her haunted mind, the endless flashbacks of the good times with the father of her children (times which were never purely good), and how quickly they were outweighed by times that were purely bad. We also become cognisant of her struggle to take any responsibility for the family dysfunction, and perhaps wonder if we'd be any more capable of consciously owning the type of parental guilt that is ever-present whether you acknowledge it or not. The mother’s voice is just as mesmerising, just as conducive of that ache of empathy that a good novel leaves the reader with, and especially heart-breaking. This switching between multiple introspective voices acts to sabotage any compulsion the reader might have to stoop to judgement. What emerges is a prism of familial female sadness in the face of a mostly absent father figure. The beauty of the writing is one source of redemption. Another is the sense we are left with, at the end of the book, that Julia is still hanging on, courageously, like the woman on the cover image, for dear life.

Title: The Sad Passions
Author: Veronica Gonzalez Pena
ISBN: 9781584351207
Published: 2013
Publisher: Semiotext(e)

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