Dead Girls

“As a girl I sensed that there wasn’t really anywhere I was safe,” Selva Almada tells us in her introduction to Dead Girls, her second book from Charco Press, translated, on this occasion, by Annie McDermott. Dead Girls is not a novel; instead it is part investigation, part memoir, as Almada explores the deep-rooted, misogynistic violence of her home country, focusing in particular of the nineteen eighties. Each of the girl’s stories is unique, yet all are killed suddenly, inexplicably:

“I didn’t know a woman could be killed for being a woman.”

The youngest victim, Maria Luisa Quevedo, is only fifteen. As with all the girls, her adult life started early, and she was working as a servant, starting around seven and finishing at three. On one particular day, presumably the last in her short life, she leaves work and is never seen alive again:

“Neither witnesses nor the police investigation could ever determine what happened or where the girl was between three o’clock on Thursday December 8th, 1983, when she left work, and the morning of Sunday the 11th, when her body was found.”

Sarita Mundin is twenty when she is murdered in 1988. As with Maria, her childhood ended prematurely; she, too, worked as a cleaner from a young age, and was married and pregnant at sixteen:

“She was too pretty for her husband to send out as a maid again, all that beauty going to waste in a haze of cleaning products. So he sent her out as a prostitute.”

She now lives in a house paid for by her married lover, Dady Olivero, with her son, fourteen-year-old (pregnant) sister, and mother. The rumour is that “her relationship with this man, more than ten years her senior and with a family of his own, was petering out.” He is the last person to be seen with her, and later the prime suspect in her murder.

Andrea Danne is perhaps the strangest case of all. There is no disappearance: she is simply found dead one morning, stabbed in her bed, though this doesn’t stop the scene quickly becoming crowded:

“A murder in the privacy of a family home which had the same exposure as a death by the roadside.”

Her sister immediate suspects Andrea’s boyfriend – not for any reason other than the man closest to her being the most likely culprit – but his reaction at the sight of her body persuades her otherwise.

Almada’s aim is not to solve these murders, not one of which led to a conviction, but to understand the pattern. She uses the skills of an investigative journalist – reading the police reports, speaking to the relatives – but also those of a novelist, in recreating their stories and rescuing them from anonymity. At one point she describes her task as follows:

“Maybe this is your mission: to gather the bones of these girls, piece them together, give them a voice and let them run, free and unfettered, wherever they have to go.”

As well investigating the deaths of the three girls, Almada also looks back on her own life, and in particular, her childhood and adolescence in the 1980s. In this way there are two streams of discovery: that of the adult Almada today writing her book; and that of the teenage Almada slowly discovering what the world can be like for women:

“I don’t remember a specific conversation about violence against women, or any particular warnings from my mother on the subject. But the topic was always there.”

She includes stories of relatives who have been threatened or assaulted by men, and her own experience of vulnerability when hitch-hiking. All this makes for a depressing portrait of a society where violence against women is normalised, by women as well as men, “discussing situations like these in whispers.” Not only does Almada eschew easy answers, she does not seek answers at all. The crimes remains unsolved, and so too the origins of violence – sociological, psychological – remain unexplored. Almada’s focus remains entirely on the victims – whether they died, survived or resisted. This gives the book a powerful emotional punch, though one that may make some readers flinch. Much like Yuri Herrera’s A Silent Fury, Dead Girls gives a voice to the voiceless, and, similarly, we should be careful not to dismiss its injustice as belonging entirely to a different time or place: teenage girls may not be routinely murdered but the threat of male violence remains. Almada’s book is as much a warning as a reminder.

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11 Responses to “Dead Girls”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I’ve read about this elsewhere, Grant, and it sounds a powerful book – not quite sure I’m ready for its emotional punch right now, though it’s so important that these women aren’t forgotten and that we see the warning. I find it interesting, though, that Almada doesn’t look to analyse the causes of the violent attitude towards women in her society – I would perhaps have expected that in a book like this.

    • 1streading Says:

      That’s true, though the danger there is that it would become a book about violent men rather than their victims – I suspect that’s why she has limited herself to describing their experience.

  2. Cathy746books Says:

    I’ve just ordered this from my local bookshop based on one really powerful quote I saw on Twitter. I actually thought it was a novel but am even more intrigued now.

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    This sounds like an incredibly important book – both potent and thought-provoking. As you say, it’s vital that these stories are told and not forgotten or swept under the carpet in an attempt to ‘move on’. All credit to Charco Press for publishing it…

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    This is a bit of a must read for me, mostly based on how strong I thought The Wind that Lays Waste was.

    Great point btw in your response to Jacqui above. Herrera of course also spoke to community.

    It makes a refreshing change to see the victims getting centred, rather than the often rather prurient focus on the aggressors which I suspect if anything risks glamourising such behaviours.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, it felt like a choice to focus on the victims – even the fact that the cases are unsolved (which emphasizes how little these girls were cared about) means that we are not only concerned with who did it.

  5. Richard Says:

    This is one of my favorite books of the year so far although I hesitate to frame it in such a way given its subject matter. I agree that Almada managed to give a voice to the victims and their families, and I also appreciated how she subtly threaded her own anecdotes about growing up with the culture also evident in the violence against women in the ’80s and on up to the present. Very powerful stuff.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, at first I wanted her to be more ‘detective’ like but then I realized that this was the victims’ book, and that crime fiction, even true crime, invariably focuses on the criminal. (Also just posted another Argentinian novel for 1956 Club you’ll be (hopefully!) pleased to hear).

  6. International Booker Prize Predictions 2021 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Dugdale). Other ‘non-fiction’ books which may make it onto the long list are Selva Almada’s Dead Girls (tr. Annie McDermott) and Yan Lianke’s Three Brothers (tr. Carlos Rojas – Lianke is a […]

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