I’m not even sure I can write a review that does justice to the brilliance of this book, but I’ll do my best. Cantoras – a word which means “female singers”, but is also older slang for same-sex attracted women – tells the story of five lesbian women living under the Uruguayan dictatorship. Wanting to escape the suffocating surveillance of the city, the women go out to a remote town on the Atlantic coast – Cabo Polonio, where they can be their true selves amidst the waves, rocks and sand dunes.
The characters are all really strong and gripping, forming an excellent ensemble cast. From the beginning, we have Romina, a left-wing Jew who’s been arrested and tortured for past involvement in communist activity; Flaca, a third-generation butcher who broke Romina’s heart by hooking up with someone else while Romina was imprisoned; Anita “La Venus”, a frustrated housewife and Flaca’s new lover; the quietly enigmatic Melena; and the youngest of them all, sixteen-year-old Paz. As the novel unfolds over a number of years, you become swept up in the stories of these women’s lives and loves. There are victories, and there are awful tragedies, with the book as a whole concluding in an uplifting if bittersweet kind of way.
I really enjoyed how, even when the characters came in conflict with each other, all their perspectives came across as equally understandable and sympathetic. You can see why Anita would leave Flaca for the exciting, vibrant singer Ariella, but you can also feel Flaca’s heartbreak at being left. Similarly, when Romina ends her passionless relationship with Melena for the Paraguayan artist Diana, you can understand that too… and although that results in tragedy for Melena, it’s hard to agree with Flaca that Romina made the wrong decision for herself, you know? It’s also wonderful to see how their friendships endure and mature over time, that their bonds run much deeper than whatever fallings-out they have in the short term.
But along with reading about these wonderful characters, reading Cantoras also has you reading about Uruguay, and an extremely dark, violent period in its history. The fear of “el proceso”, the torture meted out against left-wing opponents of the regime, is palpable in this book, as is the rage and indignation of characters like Romina who’ve endured it. In this Cantoras shares something in common with de Robertis’ early books, and especially Perla, which talked about the cruelty of the Argentine dictatorship on the other side of the Río de la Plata. There’s a part where soldiers descend on Cabo Polonio and take over the lighthouse, and you can really feel the women’s frustration at having their “safe space” taken away from them.
But Cantoras also makes the point that it wasn’t just the dictatorship grinding gay people down; it was much of traditional Uruguayan society, under the influence of the Catholic church and patriarchal value systems. There’s a grim flashback to a gay conversion clinic in Buenos Aires, and there are also many references to the “esposas”, the handcuffs, which supposedly bound women to the role society demanded of them. Girls having to clean up after their brothers, so their brothers could enjoy the free time; how even the communists had women thanklessly doing all the food prep and cleaning; how women were expected to find husbands, and how profoundly weird you’d be – to the point of attracting suspicion from the regime – if you opted not to marry. But this, too, changes over the course of the book. By the last chapter, same-sex marriage is legal in Uruguay, Paz has long been running a gay bar in Montevideo, and Cabo Polonio has become a tourist attraction for those interested in Uruguay’s gay history. The women do joke a bit about how “women getting married” is a concept that seemed an absurdity in their youth, and wistfully lament how the next generation think the word cantoras is amusingly quaint, seeing as they can now openly describe themselves as lesbianas or bisexuales. They’re wistful, but overall they have to be pleased that young women who love women don’t know the fear that they used to.
So, to cut a long story short: read this book!! Great characters, an interesting time and place to be set in, Carolina de Robertis’ standard beautiful writing, and a pageturningly brisk pace.