Translated from Spanish by Frances Riddle
When her daughter is found dead, hanging from the belfry in the local church, Elena does not accept it as suicide. She KNOWS, as only a mother can, that her piously Catholic daughter would NEVER do such a thing. Besides Rita was too terrified of lightning to be in the vicinity of the church when it was raining. The police do not listen to her protestations. Neither do her friends and acquaintances. Elena will have to investigate herself. There’s just one slight snag. Advanced Parkinson’s disease. Elena’s body will not cooperate. She will have to enlist help, and knows the very person; Isabel, who lives on the opposite side of town and whom she has not seen for 20 years.
The novel begins as Elena, who can no longer move without medication, takes the second pill of the day. It follows her painstaking journey to Isabel, and pull no punches in depicting the everyday humiliations and indignities that Parkinson’s disease (which Elena, with reason, addresses with utmost disdain) inflicts upon its victims and their caregivers. Elena’s memories of life with her daughter reveal a fractious relationship, and her stubborness and sheer bloody-mindedness, invaluable for pushing her across town, might have made life difficult for her daughter.
By the time she reaches Isabel, we know why Elena presumes she will help. She will be only too glad to repay an old debt. Isabel sees things differently, and Elena, with no choice but to sit and listen until her fourth pill kicks in, is about to be disabused not only of her assumptions re Isabel, but also re her daughter. Where Elena knew everything at the beginning, by the final page she realises she knew nothing.
Claudia Piñeiro is not unknown to an Anglophone readership. Bitter Lemon Press have previously published 4 of her crime novels. They passed over Elena Knows, originally published in 2007, probably because it is a literary novel with political persuasions. Those are precisely the reasons why Charco Press have run with it, intending to relaunch Piñeiro in English “as a writer of ethical weight and commitment”. The key mystery – that alleged debt of Isabel’s – concerns itself with a woman’s right to choose, an issue which speaks to the central theme, the restriction of a woman’s freedom whether by illness, motherhood, filial duty, men, religion or the law.
From what I understand, Piñeiro has become even more political in her more recent output, in which case I’ll probably not follow her path. (Never say never, as Isabel says.) I look forward to reading her crime fiction, however, for Elena Knows is very well written (and translated). You know how I love a metaphor – Parkinson’s disease has rendered Elena unable to hold her head straight. She now lives in a permanently bowed position, restricting her view and limiting her perspective. Which tells you exactly what you need to know about the main character’s point-of-view.