Letting go of the past

Karin Lock reviews Cockfight by Maria Fernanda Ampuero and The Bitch by Pilar Quintana

With quarantine now mandatory when returning to the UK, and foreign holidays forbidden, reading may be the only way to travel in 2021. Books have always opened windows into different cultures. They can also confront difficult subject matter and encourage more understanding and empathy for others.

Cockfight is the debut work of Ecuadorian journalist Maria Fernanda Ampuero. This compilation of 13 tales recounts domestic scenarios that often border on the macabre or grotesque. Home is not always a place of safety: it can be a brutal environment where adolescents grow up fast and learn that “life isn’t a game anymore.”

Coercion and control are the main themes in Cockfight. There are girls who bully; women who always say ‘yes’ to men; and those too traumatised to leave the house. Secrets exist behind every family’s closed doors and nothing is taboo: torture, incest and abuse are all explored. For this reason, this anthology is not recommended for readers at risk of being triggered.

Most enjoyable is the writer’s acute dissection of class. In the story Ali, maids sleep in cupboards or have their underwear checked for smuggled food. In Coro, rich ladies exist on pills, botox and eating disorders, destined to gossip to avoid “having to talk about themselves”. In Monsters, even the nuns, who “gave out rice to the poor while they ate sea bass,” are not spared.

Written in simple language with powerful animal imagery, Cockfight highlights how women struggle to negotiate their identities in an intensely violent patriarchal world. The author concludes that humans are motivated by the primal emotions of fear and lust; or as one character puts it: “people are incapable of seeing themselves, and that is the root of all evil”.

In a similar vein, Pilar Quintana’s The Bitch transports the reader to an isolated stretch of Colombia’s Pacific coast. This is the wild stormy west where the air is “so damp that a fish could have lived out of water”. Home to the country’s Afro-Colombian population, it is a region of rich cultural heritage, emerald sea, and black sand beaches.

High above a small village, the proud but lonely Damaris lives on a bluff in a wooden stilted shack with her fisherman husband Rogelio. Destined to be childless, Damaris adopts a surrogate puppy to fulfil her dream of motherhood. Her puppy Chirli has, like Damaris, lost her mother at a young age and a strong bond develops.

The Bitch is a beautiful atmospheric novella which depicts the harsh lives of a resourceful and resilient community living at the mercy of natural forces. The steamy jungle and tempestuous ocean determine Damaris’ fate as she in turn tries to control her beloved pup. The supporting characters are interesting but Damaris commands most sympathy in this moving story.

Pilar Quintana is a notable writer from Colombia’s thriving literary scene and has several international awards to her name. The novel’s remote location is based on her own nine-year residence in Juanchoco, Valle del Cauca. On arrival, the author witnessed a dead dog on the beach, which is the book’s starting point.

The Bitch and Cockfight both reveal the psychological effects of internalised self-blame and the importance of letting go of the past. One bad chapter in life does not determine a story’s ending. Just as nature corrects its mistakes, humans have the capacity to heal and thrive.

Tottenham Community Press is published by Social Spider, a not-for-profit company. Please consider supporting us by signing up as a member.