Thursday Night Widows by Claudia Pineiro had already caught my eye (in a bookshop of all places) before the long-list was announced. Published by Bitter Lemon Press, with its title picked out on both spine and cover in blood red capitals, it would look like any other crime novel were it not for its rather unusual commendation from a Nobel Prize winner, Jose Saramago. It is like any other crime novel in the fact that it opens with a death (three deaths, in fact) and closes by explaining the events surrounding these deaths. In between, however, the novel is more interested in exposing the class divisions of Argentina.
While reading the novel, I came across the following in an extract from Tony Judt’s new book, Ill Fares the Land, in The Guardian:
“But inequality is not just a technical problem. It illustrates and exacerbates the loss of social cohesion – the sense of living in a series of gated communities whose chief purpose is to keep out other people (less fortunate than ourselves) and confine our advantages to ourselves and our families: the pathology of the age and the greatest threat to the health of any democracy.”
This seems to me to provide a good starting point to understanding the novel, set as it is in such a gated community, Cascade Heights:
“It has a golf course, tennis courts, swimming pool and two club houses. And private security…. That’s more than five hundred acres of land, accessible only to us or to people authorised by one of us.”
This narrative voice, what might be dubbed the ‘communal voice’, explains the rules, habits and attitudes of The Cascade with a complacency and smugness that admits no contradiction. It is intermingled with third and first person narration, the third person often focusing on those characters that don’t quite fit in; the first person providing us with a moderately sympathetic character in Virginia Guevara., and preventing the novel becoming an entirely savage attack on the wealthy. There is, however, a certain irony in the fact that the multiple viewpoints do not take us outside the gates.
The novel begins with Virginia’s husband, Ronie, arriving home unexpectedly early from his Thursday card night (the appellation ‘Thursday Night Widows’ is originally a comic reference to the husbands’ absence once a week) and shortly after jumping from the house’s balcony. The necessary hospitalisation that follows means that Virginia does not hear until the next day that the other three regular card players are all dead, apparently killed in an accident. Only at the end does the novel return to the scene of the accident and reveal what actually happened.
In the meantime we become acquainted with Cascade Heights, a name that suggests both superiority and a fall. The culture of the community is conveyed through a series of snapshots, each providing an insight into the families living there. Warning signs are in evidence immediately as Virginia and Ronie get a good deal on their property as the previous owner committed suicide. Virginia is impressed by the house’s study:
“A fully stocked bookcase lined all the walls. The spines were perfect and intact, bound I green and burgundy leather.”
However, the books are false, repeating the same titles over and over.
Cascade Heights is all about appearance. Gustavo may hit his wife, but is respected for his tennis skills. Mariana, desperate for a child, adopts a young girl and her baby brother, but she dislikes the girl’s name, Ramona, and changes it to Romina. Tellingly, when they arrive home for the first time, Ramona is left in the car:
“They went into the house together and the little girl saw the door close behind them.”
As the economic climate worsens, the pressure to keep up appearances increases. This leads to a number of amusing incidents, for example, Teresa persuading Lala to have her lawn reseeded:
“Listen, honey, I know your old man’s got no job and everything’s grim, but this is about more than that.”
Ultimately, though, the novel darkens towards its conclusion.
Could it win? It succeeds both as a crime novel and as an indictment of an unequal society. However, the fact that it is a whodunit (as Ian Rankin will tell you) makes it an unlikely winner.