In this rhapsodic debut by Carolina de Robertis, three women reveal bittersweet stories set against the backdrop of an "invisible mountain" - a play on the fact that Montevideos real mountain isnt a mountain at all, but only a hill. The mountain can also be read as a metaphor for the private burdens mothers and daughters must carry. Between them, Pajarita, Eva, and Salomé experience: a move from the country to the city; child labor and sexual abuse; hospitalization; a marriage of convenience; birth; estrangement; the exhilarating re-discovery of a first (and now transgendered) childhood love; the publication of a first book; rebellion; political turmoil; prison rape; the loss of a daughter to adoption; reconciliation; and death. If the inclusion of these many life-changing events sounds intense, it is - but the multi-generational timeline allows for dramatic episodes, and De Robertis layers them in ways that seem natural. The women's stories, and the manner of their telling, become part elegy and part paean to the city that binds them.
Montevideo serves as a motherland, a refuge for exiles, and a hotbed for revolutionaries - a city whose lure extends beyond its borders, and a city of contrasts. European architecture coexists with cantegriles (shanty-towns). Poetry springs from a humble home whose matriarch doles out herbal remedies as cures for unspecified aches. Mate, the national beverage often served from a gourd, flows as freely as the drinks in a bohemian café. Whats not to love about a setting as imaginative as this?
Nevertheless, The Invisible Mountain should not be mistaken for an escape for the armchair-traveler. It is a tough, lyrical tribute to women dealing with sometimes extraordinary circumstances, some of which are unsettling - while there are no excessively graphic depictions, the suggestions of torture occurring in the aftermath of a revolt-gone-wrong can be difficult to read. The women's triumphs seem few and hard-won, but the novel does not set out on an entirely tragic course. It ends where it begins, with one of the characters contemplating reaching out to the next generation. This sense of continuity and renewal is one of the pleasures of being offered the panoramic view; many of us may know secondhand stories about our ancestors, but such stories often leave us with more questions than answers. Here, we're able to trace the similarities in the women, and to witness how history does (or doesn't) repeat itself. Hope, as we might expect, often arrives in the form of a mother's sacrifices and fierce loyalties toward her children.
Eva in particular stands out. Bridging the divide between Pajarita (her mother, whose disappearance and sudden reappearance as an infant was thought to be miraculous), and Salomé, her own daughter (who is less strong and more susceptible to persuasion), she combines beauty with determination. One can hardly fault her for some of her choices, but she's no victim. Eva is calculating, vulnerable, ambitious, a little sentimental, and anything but conventional. Her brief stint as a wife moving through genteel society is one of the more revealing moments: we find that she's adaptable, able to charm others with effort, but also remains true to her beliefs, which eventually results in a major rift. When she finally reunites with someone she thought she'd lost, we feel the tensions releasing right along with her.
The Invisible Mountain is an incisive examination of some of life's trickier dilemmas, including when to place family at the forefront, and when to honor your own ideals even at the expense of others. The novel is also an enchanting new entry in the realm of contemporary Latin American literature. De Robertis brings Montevideo to life in scene after scene; considering the scope and depth of this little-known gem on the banks of the Río de la Plata, it should come as no surprise to learn the work was eight years in the making. It's been well-worth the wait.
This review was originally published in September 2009, and has been updated for the August 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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