This is a wonderful book. Written in the first person, it tells the story of Richard Garay – a half-English gay Argentine – in such warm, intimate detail that you end up sucked in right through to the end. It starts slowly, with so much seemingly irrelevant detail that the first half can get a bit tiring, but it picks up.
Fundamentally, this is a story about Richard’s longing to be loved and accepted for who he is. His parents were unable to give this to him, and despite a series of casual encounters which he very much enjoyed, he couldn’t get it through his love life either until he found Pablo. The passages detailing his love for Pablo, their sweet domesticity, the simple happiness of being in one another’s company, are some of the most enjoyable in the book. However, set in the 1980s, the spectre of HIV/AIDS rears its head and interferes in their blissful relationship.
As well as being a universal story about love, and a “gay” story about HIV/AIDS, this is also a story about Argentina and the tumultuous changes it was going through in the 1980s. This never becomes the main focus of the story, despite Richard being in prime position to observe the changes going on. Early in the book he describes being disturbed from a sexual encounter by lights going off and on at a police station across the street, and all the cars with their bonnets open so the power can be piped into the building. He asks his lover for that evening why, and the answer, of course? Because someone is being tortured inside. Later he tells a group of Americans that he hasn’t known anyone who was harmed by the dictatorship, only for a classmate to interject with quiet indignation, and say that he’s not sure how he can say that, when a mutual classmate of theirs was abducted and thrown into the ocean.
For the latter part of the novel, Argentina is transitioning to democracy, and selling off all its institutions to wealthy businessmen in North America and Europe. It’s known by everyone that this policy will lead to mass suffering in Argentina, but people shrug their shoulders and figure it’s simply what must be done. The picture Tóibín paints of Buenos Aires is bleak and cold, that of a worn-down city which lacks the energy to make anything better of itself. It’s sad, but vividly portrayed.
Overall, this is an excellent book which – despite its slow start – I would highly recommend.