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This World Does Not Belong To Us is a skilful and unnerving debut novel from Ecuadorian author Natalie García Freire. Whilst I hesitate to say that I enjoyed this book in any traditional sense of the word, I would describe it as a masterpiece in atmosphere and the power of perspective. García Freire is an author in full control of estimable powers and effectively translated by Victor Meadowcroft, who captures the subtlety at work in the narrative voice, as well as its audacious confidence. It is this subtlety in point of view that engenders the permeating dread of the story and snares the reader into nightmarish compulsion as it unfolds.
Lucas, whose narrative voice is arresting and unsettling in equal measure, relays his return to the family home from which he was expelled as a child. The home and particularly his mother’s decrepit garden symbolise the irreversible moral entropy that has taken hold of this place and its inhabitants since the arrival of Felisberto and Elroy – the latter seeming to embody decay and rot literally in his ‘dead foot’ whilst acting as a terrible enforcer of the former’s brutality. The advent of these two figures heralds the unravelling of Lucas’ world culminating in the confinement and eventual eviction of his mother, who is treated with extraordinary cruelty as she is sent to an asylum. Her fate is reflected in the destruction of her garden; the Edenic images point to a subverted coming of age story in which Lucas’ innocence is destroyed and his childlike fascination with insects transformed with him into a menacing symbol of degradation. Gone is the delight he feels as a child in the vivid green of a grasshopper; replaced by Señorita Nancy, the spider who nests on Lucas’ chest (and sits, threatening, on the front cover of the book) as he exacts vengeance with the help of the insect world. This warped subversion of childhood is a good example of the way in which García Freire discomfits and wrongfoots the reader through a skilful deployment of the grotesque: whilst Nancy is a source of comfort to Lucas, who is also calmed by the scent of urine, both unsettle the reader.
The novel is written as a dramatic monologue addressed to Lucas’ dead father. The persistent ‘you’ patterns the story and aligns the reader uncomfortably with this figure of a brutal, flawed patriarch who invites disaster upon his family and falls in thrall to the corrosive influence of Felisberto and Elroy. This use of the second person locates the reader as a collateral recipient of Lucas’ wrath, the hatred he feels for his father is tangible and venomous and by extension suggests culpability and collusion, leaving the figure of Lucas even more isolated. This is the particular skill that García Freire exercises in this novel; she creates a quiet but insistent sense of displacement (the clue is, I suppose, in the title). There is a nagging sense, even from the outset, that this small cast of characters are interlopers in a world that does not belong to them. The point of view is de-centred in a manner that intensifies the atmosphere of intrusion and claustrophobia; Lucas is forced to become an outsider and the reader is made to feel that sense of displacement, that we too are watching from a corner or a window sill, perhaps perched in a spider’s web of our own devising.
The language is simultaneously sparse and poetic, the concern with atmosphere and preoccupation with metamorphosis remind me at times of Sarah Hall’s short stories, the novel sharing the focused quality of her work. The prose is tight, disciplined and the narrative propelled with clear, uncompromising direction which is augmented by the grim inevitability that hangs over Lucas. There is a timeless quality to the setting that helps to draw out notes familiar to revenge tragedy as Lucas and the plot gather momentum towards a disturbing climax that speaks to the central imagery of the insect underworld and the squalid degradation of the human sphere it represents. “All of this surrounds us,” Lucas states as he readies himself for his final assault, “When we sleep, they come out to make a life for themselves. They creep around us, like the gods of our dreams, and one day they will once again rule the world, because this world belongs to them.”
García Freire excavates the depths of human cruelty and figures it in terms of the creatures that inhabit the dark crevices and cracks of our own world, those we expel or would rather pretend are not there, fearful of their venom and stings. In a novel ostensibly dominated by the toxicity of male relationships of various kinds, it is notable that the victims who experience the most harm are women. The fate of Lucas’ mother is distressing and ultimately the key to the brutalisation we see take hold of her child. In this way, it is possible to read the novel as a study in masculine cruelty and the cycle it inculcates. The inhumanity of Lucas’ father and his guests breeds brutality like disease; it takes over the house and its inhabitants as a violent infestation; an infestation that Lucas subsumes as part of himself and weaponises in order to enact his own violent revenge, not only on those who wronged him and his family, but on the host, the house itself and all who inhabit it.
This World Does Not Belong to Us
By Natalia Garcia Freire
Translated from the Spanish by Victor Meadowcroft
One World Publications, 192 pages
Alexandra is a teacher and writer with an interest in literature, culture and feminism. She has an MA in Modern and Contemporary Literature and is in the midst of a PhD looking at intersectional trauma in contemporary women's writing. Alexandra writes about TV and books for various outlets including The F-Word and Sabotage. She also writes creatively and has had both poetry and short fiction published online and in print. One of her stories was shortlisted for the Cambridge Short Story Award and she is in the final throes of her first novel.