About the Book
House of Beauty is a high-end salon in Bogotá’s exclusive Zona Rosa area, and Karen is one of its best beauticians. One rainy afternoon a teenage girl turns up for a treatment, dressed in her school uniform and smelling of alcohol. The very next day, the girl is found dead.
Karen was the last person to see the girl alive, so the girl’s mother is desperate to find out what Karen knows. Most important of all: who was her daughter going to meet that night?
Format: Paperback (247 pages) Publisher: 4th Estate
Publication date: 7th March 2019 Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Crime
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Told from multiple points of view, initially I found it hard to distinguish between the different narrators, especially Lucia and her friend Claire, although it helped that Claire’s sections are written in the first person, whilst the others are in the third person. The story also skips forwards and backwards in time meaning, although billed as a crime novel, it’s not long before it becomes less of a ‘whodunnit’ but more a ‘will they get away with it?’
The House of Beauty of the book’s title not only provides a connection between many of the characters but is also a place of work for beauticians like Karen and a place of indulgence. ‘House of Beauty takes me in, I’m submerged in the silence and the expensive perfumes, the rosewater, oils and shampoo.’ In the case of Claire, the intimate services performed there are a kind of substitute for the affection that is lacking in her private life. It’s also an almost exclusively female environment, causing one of the male characters to refer to it as ‘that place, off limits to men, where there was room for all kinds of conspiracies and secrets’.
If it’s secrets and conspiracies you’re after, there’s no shortage of them amongst the male characters and there’s certainly little beauty. Take your pick from a rapist, a drug addict, a corrupt politician, a dodgy taxi driver, and any number of unfaithful husbands. The only male characters who display any integrity are Cojack, the private investigator hired by Consuelo, the mother of the dead girl, and Jorge, Consuelo’s ex-husband. They find themselves pitted against corruption in high places and a bureaucratic legal system that moves at a snail’s pace.
As the book progresses, Karen becomes the dominant character in the story, finding herself in situations that force her to make increasingly more desperate and risky choices and casting her in the role of victim. But is Karen’s story true or is her life a fiction constructed by herself or others?
At one point, Lucia observes, ‘Life is a fabrication, don’t you think? Something we make up from start to finish.’ Whilst ostensibly about the search for the truth about a young girl’s death, House of Beauty exposes the corruption at the heart of Colombian society but also explores the notion of artifice, whether that’s the double lives led by many of the characters, the cosmetically enhanced faces and bodies presented to the world, or the external beauty that hides ugliness within.
In three words: Intriguing, thought-provoking, dark
Try something similar: The Liar by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
About the Author
Melba Escobar is a fiction writer and a journalist. She lives in Bogota, Colombia with her children and husband. (Photo credit: Goodreads suthor page)
About the Translator
Elizabeth Bryer is a writer and translator from Australia. Her translation of Claudia Salazar Jiménez’s Blood of the Dawn was published by Deep Vellum in 2016. In 2017 she was a recipient of a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant.