Trigger warnings for rape and suicide.
Five women gather on an Atlantic beach in Uruguay at the beginning of Cantoras, by Carolina de Robertis, to fully relax for the first time in their lives in the summer of 1977. Flaca, La Venus, Romina, Malena, and Paz are celebrating a two fold escape. The first thing they are escaping is El Proceso—a dictatorship that held the country in an iron grip from 1973 to 1985. They don’t all know that they’ve made their second escape until they start to open up and talk to each other. By the end of the first day, all of the women admit to being cantoras (lesbians, so-called because they make each other “sing”). By the end of their vacation, the women make a plan to buy a little house in Cabo Polonio to share. Their sudden status as a found family and as shared home owners bind the women together for the next thirty years.
From that day in 1977, the perspective moves from woman to woman. We slowly learn about each woman’s backstory, how they came to recognize their sexuality, how they either hide or embrace that sexuality, and how they form and break new relationships. All of this is set against the sometimes tumultuous history of Uruguay under the last years of the dictatorship and the return of democracy. Romina, who was kidnapped, tortured, and raped by the secret police, becomes part of the active resistance. Flaca and La Venus have a series of affairs before finding or failing to find their partners. Malena struggles with the memories of being “treated” in a Buenos Aires clinic for her sexuality before escaping a near lobotomy. Paz, the youngest, becomes a pioneer in the Uruguayan gay rights movement. But while the trajectories of these women’s lives might have taken them away from each other, they become a new family for each other. No one else can really understand these women like the other members of the group.
I struggled to get into this book a little at the beginning because of the author’s style. De Robertis heightens many of these women’s experiences and it was hard for me to ramp up to the kind of sensory detail and philosophical musings the characters—especially Romina and La Venus—was difficult. I raised my eyebrows a lot during the first chapter or so. Once we start to dive into the characters’ histories, and the narratives started to get more grounded, I was able to relax into the book. All of these women, even hedonistic Flaca, all spend a lot of time thinking about what they want and what they feel. It’s an astonishing amount of self-reflection. And yet, there was so much going on in all of these characters’ lives that it kept the book humming along while the women wrestle with their various passions and existential crises. Cantoras never seemed slow to me once it got rolling.
As I read Cantoras, I couldn’t help but think of The L Word. I didn’t want to. The writing, the characterization, and the setting are all too good for that comparison. De Robertis is a genius at bringing Uruguay to life on the page. (I highlighted a lot of names of writers and musicians I want to look up and foods I want to try.) Still, Cantoras is a kind of soap opera that follows a group of friends and lovers for decades. We meet their friends and lovers and watch all of their relationships evolve as their country evolves. We see them become whole people over the course of the novel, finally laying all their ghosts to rests. There is sex, but de Robertis never goes into the kind of detail that The L Word delighted in. Readers looking for (mostly) positive depictions of gay life should definitely pick this book up. If nothing else, the almost utopian ending and loving descriptions of the setting have made me seriously consider putting Uruguay on my bucket list.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.