This is body horror at its most literary.
This novella is captivating, strange, and surprising. I love reading weird and new things, and this completely fit the bill.
The story is separated in two halves, with the first set in a sanatorium in the early 1900s in Buenos Aires. A group of doctors are interested in what happens after death and they hatch a plan that seems less than legal involving guillotines and terminal cancer patients. It’s sort of like Martyrs meets something more bizarro and comedic, like Reanimator. The second half is set one hundred years later, where an avant-garde artist pushes the boundaries of body art.
The book explores liminality, the real and unreal, the horrific of the unknown (or possibly knowing the unknown), the chaos of bodies, and how humans as a species continually attempt to live beyond what is meant for us.
Death has always fascinated and repulsed humans. Does something lie beyond? How can we find out about it? Do we really want to find out about it? And perhaps that liminal, transitory space between life and death holds the answer—how can we hold on to life while seeing death and communicate back? On the other hand, the whole point of understanding death so well is really just to cheat it. And a way to cheat death, at least symbolically, is to leave your mark, to make sure that no one will ever forget you. These are the themes that came across as I read through both sections of Comemadre.
I was completely captivated by the first section and found myself losing interest in the artists. If the book could have been longer, I would have liked to see how their narratives could have interplayed with each other more, perhaps with alternating chapters. But maybe that is a tired literary structure now.
As it is, the section with the doctors felt somewhat unfinished and I just wanted to know more! The whole book has this air of weirdness, so it works, but I really lost all the momentum for the story at the switch. I wanted to know more about the creepy titular plant!
I really appreciate Coffee House Press for offering an English translation of this unique work. I think this style of writing is gaining some steam for English-reading eyes, especially with successes like Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream, though it is nothing new to those who are writing it. I’m glad this book is now available to a wider audience and I hope its strangeness is appreciated!
My thanks to the publisher for sending me an advance copy to read and review.
Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.