REVIEW by Amy McCauley

NWR Issue r4

Mildew

by Paulette Jonguitud (author & translator)

Mildew is a truly enveloping, truly original book: a book which pulls you so completely into its world that the echo of its voices and situations stays with you, like the murky unshakeable residue of a dream. Jonguitud’s achievements are various. Her use of voice, for example, is masterful; and she pulls off that most tricksy of formal devices: the first person narrator who speaks compellingly in both past and present tense. Such is her skill that the switch between tenses is barely perceptible. Indeed, it is only after I finished the book that I understood how the story had effortlessly dipped in and out of different ‘time zones’.

And this is a mark of just how good a writer Jonguitud really is. The narrative is handled with such control and such lightness of touch that the twists in the story – and there are many twists – are genuinely, viscerally shocking. Shame, loyalty, honour, desire, guilt, fate, free will. The themes circle around the central characters like a pack of hungry dogs. But Mildew is also a deeply compassionate, surprising and funny book.

Constanza – the book’s protagonist – is a middle-aged woman dealing with her ‘empty nest’ following a life of childrearing. Her daughter (Agustina) is about to be married and Constanza is suffering from an unusual illness – one which forces her to face up to a series of family secrets. As the narrative develops we learn about Constanza’s marriage to Felipe, her relationship to the younger Constanza (the ‘cuckoo in the nest’), and her life as a woman in Mexico. Out of this apparently ordinary set of relationships and situations, Jonguitud tells a story of love, sacrifice and betrayal which reads like a myth, such is the scope and depth of its reach. But perhaps most of all it is her handling of women’s relationships with one another which is the real achievement.

The two Constanzas – who share a secret that emerges with a delicate, creeping strangeness – allow Jonguitud to explore youth, age, sex and desire by way of counterpointing the two women’s experiences. She also confronts childbirth, motherhood and infidelity, and probes the darkest most unspeakable corners of women’s often highly competitive relationships with each other. The wild, mocking and predatory attitude of the young Constanza is pitched against the older one’s fierce pride and protectiveness. As the two women battle over Felipe, the nuanced shifts in power are realised with a frank and painful honesty.

In the wrong hands, Jonguitud’s plot would descend into melodrama, but despite the high emotions and claustrophobic staging, her prose is utterly clean and transparent. Constanza’s narration is consistently matter-of-fact, and the exchanges between husband and wife are so finely wrought that the tension is pitched to near-perfection.

Comparisons inevitably spring to mind – but they are so completely diverse that listing them simply testifies to Jonguitud’s originality and daring. Alfred Hitchcock, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Franz Kafka, Yasushi Inoue and Clarice Lispector: I felt something of each in Mildew. But this list points to a further strength – the way in which the novel occupies multiple genres (psychological thriller, murder mystery, love triangle, family drama, tragedy, supernatural fiction) while simultaneously evading genre classification entirely.

This is a book which exists on its own terms and uses its own voice. The meshing of form with theme is uniquely well-realised, and the level of control over plot, character and dialogue is astonishingly well done. In my view Jonguitud achieves what only the best writers are capable of. She tells a local story on the smallest of canvases, but with such skill, precision and depth of honesty that the story acquires the enduring and immovable power of fable. In my view Jonguitud deserves a readership outside of her native Mexico, and I dearly hope CB editions continues to publish her work in English.

Amy McCauley is in the closing phase of her PhD candidature at Aberystwyth University. As a poet she has published widely in journals and anthologies, and she is the author of a verse play, ‘My Baby Girl’. She lives in Manchester.




       


previous review: Crumbling Pageant
next review: Reasoning, For his Warriors & Prayer at the End



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