#BookReview House of Beauty by Melba Escobar, translated by Elizabeth Bryer

House of BeautyAbout 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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My Review

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

Melba EscobarAbout 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)

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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.

#BookReview Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

AnythingIsPossibleAbout the Book

Recalling Olive Kitteridge in its richness, structure, and complexity, Anything Is Possible explores the whole range of human emotion through the intimate dramas of people struggling to understand themselves and others.

Anything is Possible tells the story of the inhabitants of rural, dusty Amgash, Illinois, the hometown of Lucy Barton, a successful New York writer who finally returns, after seventeen years of absence, to visit the siblings she left behind.

Format: Hardcover (272 pages)      Publisher: Penguin
Publication date: 4th May 2017     Genre: Contemporary Fiction

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My Review

Anything Is Possible is a series of interconnected stories set in or around the town of Amgash in Illinois.  Lucy Barton, the main character of the author’s earlier book, My Name Is Lucy Barton, is the link between the various stories.  All the characters either knew Lucy or knew of her. Lucy herself doesn’t turn up in person until the story entitled ‘Sister’ which describes the long overdue reunion with her brother, Pete, and sister, Vicky.  Their sharing of childhood memories provides readers like me who haven’t read My Name Is Lucy Barton with a sense of the tone and subject matter of that book.

The book deals with some serious issues: failed or dysfunctional relationships, illness, bereavement, sexual assault, even murder. Although there’s no doubt about the author’s skill in creating flawed characters, I’ll admit I found the sense of melancholy that runs through a lot of the stories quite overwhelming at times. It’s probably why some of my favourite stories were those with a more uplifting tone. For example, ‘Mississippi Mary’ in which Angelina pays a long-awaited visit to her mother, now living in Italy with a new husband, and finds a way to come to terms with the new direction her mother’s life has taken. Or ‘Dottie’s Bed & Breakfast’ in which Dottie listens to the experiences of those who stay at her guest house, as they find they are able to unburden themselves to her. ‘To listen to a person is not passive. To really listen is active, and Dottie had really listened.’

As you read the stories the links between characters become progressively more apparent. Characters feature in other stories, even if it’s only passing one another in the street or shop, driving past their house, hearing about them from a neighbour or reading about them in a newspaper. In other cases, the connections are deeper and more intimate in nature. By the end of the book, I felt I knew the citizens of Amgash and had gained a partial insight into their lives, and the choices they had made, even if seemingly unwise or illogical. In the words of Dottie, ‘She came to understand that people had to decide, really, how they were going to live’.

I received a review copy courtesy of Penguin Books UK.

In three words: Perceptive, insightful, poignant 

Try something similar: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

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Elizabeth StroutAbout the Author

Elizabeth Strout was born in Portland, Maine, and grew up in small towns in Maine and New Hampshire.  From a young age she was drawn to writing things down, keeping notebooks that recorded the quotidian details of her days.  She was also drawn to books, and spent hours of her youth in the local library lingering among the stacks of fiction.  During the summer months of her childhood she played outdoors, either with her brother, or, more often, alone, and this is where she developed her deep and abiding love of the physical world: the seaweed covered rocks along the coast of Maine, and the woods of New Hampshire with its hidden wildflowers.

During her adolescent years, Strout continued writing avidly, having conceived of herself as a writer from early on.  She read biographies of writers, and was already studying – on her own – the way American writers, in particular, told their stories.  Poetry was something she read and memorized; by the age of sixteen was sending out stories to magazines. Her first story was published when she was twenty-six.

Strout attended Bates College, graduating with a degree in English in 1977.  Two years later, she went to Syracuse University College of Law, where she received a law degree along with a Certificate in Gerontology.  She worked briefly for Legal Services, before moving to New York City, where she became an adjunct in the English Department of Borough of Manhattan Community College.  By this time she was publishing more stories in literary magazines and Redbook and Seventeen.  Juggling the needs that came with raising a family and her teaching schedule, she found a few hours each day to work on her writing.

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