Los abismos by Pilar Quintana

The cover to Los abismos by Pilar QuintanaBarcelona. Alfaguara. 2021. 246 pages.

PILAR QUINTANA HAS won the prestigious Alfaguara Novel Prize for 2021 with Los abismos (The abysses). This highly coveted literary recognition, which comes with a significant monetary award, will bring increased international attention to the Colombian writer’s work. Quintana had previously published a collection of short stories and four novels, including La perra, which has been translated into fifteen languages (Latin American Literature Today published a section from The Bitch, Lisa Dillman’s English translation of La perra, in the August 2020 issue). A veteran of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, Quintana was also a writer in residence at the International Writers’ Workshop at Hong Kong Baptist University. From this international experience, Quintana couples an appeal to universal themes with her very specific literary space, Cali, Colombia, where she was born in 1972.

Los abismos is written in first person from the perspective of Claudia, an eight-year-old girl growing up in Cali in the 1980s who is trying to make sense of her world, which is limited to her family and their small social circle. Cali, a city that enjoys summer weather year-round, is often referred to as “Heaven’s branch office” by Colombians, for its climate and the legendary friendliness of its inhabitants. Nonetheless, with a long history of conflicts between drug cartels, guerrilla movements, and the government, life has been and continues to be difficult for many in Cali and throughout Colombia. Although these conflicts are in the background, they have little impact on the girl’s immediate world and the narration of her story.

Claudia’s fears, the abysses of the title, have to do with the things that are happening around her, things that she lacks the knowledge and experience to assimilate: her parents’ marital problems, her mother’s depression, a suicide, and the accidental death of a family acquaintance. In addition, her mother’s preoccupation and speculation about the deaths of celebrities like Princess Grace, Natalie Wood, and Karen Carpenter have a strong impact on her. Toward the end of the novel, a maturing Claudia is able to process events around her, which no longer appear so daunting or disconcerting, and she and her mother develop a closer relationship and understanding of each other.

Quintana deftly captures the world of her young protagonist, who experiences many of the same things she did growing up in Cali, the surrounding mountains, and the Pacific coast of Colombia. Stylistically, the author employs the simple, direct language a child would use, and the story she narrates is convincing. Although there are some regional aspects to the text, it will appeal to a universal audience. Los abismos is a captivating, accomplished short novel.

Edward Waters Hood
Northern Arizona University

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