Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis (Literary / Historical Fiction)

Writing: 3.5/5 Characters: 4.5/5 Plot: 4.5/5
Five women find each other amidst the oppressive dictatorship in Uruguay in the 1970s. Together they manage to find and buy a small shack in a lonely coastal town where they can be themselves without fear, where they can blossom into themselves. They are “cantoras” or “women who sing” — a euphemism in this case for women who prefer women. Flaca, a relatively masculine butcher’s daughter; Romina, a Jewish refugee from Ukraine; Anita, renamed “La Venus,” a housewife who can no longer bear the standard life she is expected to lead; Malena, a schoolteacher with a hidden past; and Paz, the youngest at 16.

Following the individual and collective stories of these women through the long dictatorship and through the first years of recovery was far more captivating that I had expected. Based (I believe) on many interviews with people who had lived through this time period, the author really captured the experiences, feelings, and reactions of individuals without going overboard on the drama. I’m always appreciative of an author who recognizes that the subject can speak for itself when properly depicted without resorting to melodramatic finger pointing. Woven together in the narrative is the general persecution of people during an oppressive regime as well as the more generic persecution of homosexuals (in truth this persecution seemed to be more cultural and not actually related to the dictatorship, though the book jacket links the two together). The writing was full and descriptive, doing an excellent job of depicting the sensuality of the lesbian relationships and the pervasive tumult of feelings — fear, joy, worry, exultation — resulting from living through the period. I liked the reflection of each character as she considered her life and the larger situation into which she had been born. And her decision as to how she would participate — enjoy what she has? Take chances by working with those willing to rebel? Hide — either physically or culturally?

I learned a lot about Uruguay — I’m probably not alone in simply being unaware of this aspect of Uruguayan history. While not mentioned in the story, the all-knowing Wikipedia claims the 1973 coup that brought in the military was backed by the U.S. (I’m guessing to stop the perceived Community insurgency). Separately, the gradual opening of the culture to homosexuality, culminating in the 2013 right to same-sex marriage (the third country to do so in the Americas after Canada and Argentina), was also depicted through the stories of these women. The narrative brought together these two concurrent themes well — the book felt quite real.

A few good quotes:
“Histories tend to grow richer with time, gathering details as they pour down generations.”
“That the silence of dictatorship, the silence of the closet, as we call it now—all of that is layered and layered like blankets that muffle you until you cannot breathe. For many people it is too much. In Paraguay we have seen it. And so, here, none of you should carry the blame.”
“Furniture gave slow birth to itself: a table started as a plank on four stacks of bricks, then became a slab of swirled driftwood, found on the beach and dragged back home, cut, placed over the bricks at first until the attempt began to hammer on legs and to sand the knots and whorls on the top into a more even surface.”

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