This debut book by Carole Martinez was first published to much acclaim in France, it is now available in an English translation by Howard Curtis.
There are obvious parallels between this book and ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE, something which the publisher points out in its publicity. It is a story of a family and is full of the sort of magic that we are familiar with in Marquez's masterpiece: Fasquita's daughters possess magic powers - one can stir up revolution with the beauty of her singing, another emits a heavenly light, another can give the kiss of death. Death herself appears as a beautiful woman. Fasquita's husband goes mad and goes to live in the chicken house and the child that is born afterwards has white feathers.
But this is unlike ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE in so far as it is the story of women. As the narrator, Frasquita's youngest daughter, states: Since Genesis and the beginning of books, men have slept with History. But there are other stories. Subterranean stories conveyed in the secrets of women, tales buried in the ears of daughters, sucked in with mothers' milk, words drunk from mothers' lips. In that statement we see the true intention of the author: to write epic magic realism about women. Book One of the novel opens with Frasquita being initiated into a family rite on the occasion of her first menstruation, and like all the women in her family she receives an heirloom - a box containing her destiny. She is not allowed to open it for nine months, when she does she finds it contains reels of thread and and other sewing equipment and with it her magical powers.
In this book the feminine magic is linked to faith, in particular Catholicism. The family rite includes prayer and later Frasquita restores her child to life using the power of prayer. Early on there is an incident where Frasquita makes a heart for the statue of the Madonna. Questioned by the priest Frasquita says Yes, I don't understand why nobody did it before. She was so empty. Was it men who tore out her heart? In other magic realist books, particularly those from the Americas we have seen the European faith contrasted with the older indigenous magic, not so here.
Many of the men in the book are either fools or predators - such as the creepy paedophile doctor Eugenio or Jose, Frasquita's foolish husband. And there seems to be a common theme of men pursuing the impossible without regard to the others around them: Jose's obsession with cockfighting and then bareknuckle fighting makes him willing to risk his family home, wife and later his son or the anarchists Frasquita meets on her journey. And yet the women in the book are bound by custom and duty to stand by their foolish men in this patriarchal society. The old midwife cannot bring herself to betray Eugenio, even though she knows of what he is capable, and Frasquita accepts the consequences of Jose's gambling. But at last Frasquita does break away and sets off on a quest, which becomes as obsessive as any man's, all the more so because it seems to have no end.
As in Marquez's work and that of Isabel Allende, with whom this book has also been compared, Martinez uses magic realism to tackle difficult subjects - child abduction/murder, the atrocities of war, and of course the status of women. She also has a lyrical style which conjures up strong images - the desert landscape, Frasquita's wondrous sewing and at times the horror of man's cruelty: The people were roaring beneath the child’s voice, and the captain was asking his questions, and the guard was cutting Salvador’s face, gashing the cheeks, digging into the lines, attacking the muscle, widening the mouth, carving the features.
In Frasquita Martinez has drawn a wonderful central character. In fact her characters, in particular the women, seem to me to have a greater depth than Marquez's. A problem arises from this strength. Eighty per cent of the book has Frasquita at its heart, she is to use a suitable phrase the central thread of the book around which the other threads are woven. However she is absent from the last fifth of the book and the story focuses instead on the fates of her daughters. With the central thread gone, I felt that the story unravelled and lost focus.
That criticism aside this novel heralds the arrival of a major magic realism writer. I look forward to Carole Martinez's next novel.