The Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza (translated from the Spanish by Sarah Booker)
Published by And Other Stories, 2018 (first published in 2002)
My rating: ⭐ ⭐
The Iliac Crest is the kind of book that is so singular in concept and approach that you’re either going to click with it, or you’re not. Sadly, in my case, it just wasn’t meant to be. Though I suspected from the off it was going to be hit or miss, I couldn’t resist giving it a go when I read the blurb and got a taste for the bizarre setup and fascinating themes that lay in wait. The book opens on a ‘dark and stormy night’, as all the best stories do, with two women arriving at the home of our unnamed narrator. One of these women claims to be a famous Mexican author searching for a missing manuscript, whilst the other is the homeowner’s former lover, known only as The Betrayed. They essentially move themselves in, quickly developing their own secret language, and repeatedly claiming that they know their reluctant host’s secret; that he is, in fact, a woman.
If it weren’t for the author’s note preceding the novel, and the translator’s note at the end, I do suspect a lot of the book’s highly allegorical meaning would have been lost on me. Even with them, I was left feeling at sea for much of my time with the book. Rivera Garza does not concern herself with telling a cohesive narrative, nor crafting characters that feel in any way real. Instead, she uses them as archetypes to explore her primary themes. They are, as I interpreted it, the way we use language to discern and divide the sexes, and the concept of borders – both real and imagined. Whilst there is undoubtedly huge potential in these ideas, I felt held at such a distance throughout that any impact was vague and muted at best.
For me, the book was at its strongest when the author commented on the toxic masculinity that can erupt when someone feels their ‘manhood’ has been called into question – a theme that feels all the more relevant in today’s world, and the reason why this book’s translation into English feels so timely. These moments of brilliance were fleeting, however, swallowed up by the novel’s otherwise alienating tangents and nonsensical goings on.
An interesting read, no doubt, but one that danced around its ideas so ambiguously that I was simply left wanting more – and not in the good way.
If you’d like to give The Iliac Crest a go, you can pick up a copy from Book Depository by clicking here.