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Review: Debut fiction from Lina Meruane, Joni Murphy and Rita Indiana

Seeing Red

By Lina Meruane, translated by Megan McDowell

Deep Vellum, 170 pages, $21.50

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A writer goes blind because of complications from diabetes in Chilean author Lina Meruane's award-winning autobiographical novel, her first translated into English. Chilean writer Lucina (Lina) is at a party in New York when a firecracker goes off in her head – as the veins in her eyeball rupture, a thread of blood spills across her line of vision. For a brief moment before the blood pools, Lina literally sees red. For those of us accustomed to relying on sight, possibly nothing is quite so terrifying as the idea of suddenly losing the ability to see. Lina's blindness arrives abruptly, with no time to adapt – a fact reflected in the prose: Lina becomes dependent on her partner, Ignacio, to report the visuals, as for much else. The situation is genuinely frustrating. As Lina loses her patience (seeing red again), Meruane asks how much a person's character is truly their own, how reliant on factors outside their control.

Double Teenage

By Joni Murphy

BookThug, 200 pages, $20

On finishing Roberto Bolano's 2666 – a novel centred on the real-life murders of hundreds of women in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez – I thought, "This is a feminist masterpiece." Also, "a novel Canadians should read." Those reactions could equally apply to Joni Murphy's Double Teenage, the story of two girls growing up in 1990s Las Cruces, N.M., across the border from Ciudad Juarez. The thing about 2666 is how Bolano places femicide within a field of violence that ultimately implicates you, Dear Reader. This should be a familiar feeling for Canadians, implicated as a society in the deaths and disappearances of hundreds of women. In Double Teenage, Murphy makes this connection explicit, depicting a system of femicide that ties Ciudad Juarez to Robert Pickton's pig farm. Murphy's novel is more specific than Bolano's, concerned with our pan-NAFTA present (the free-trade agreement comes under blistering critique). Brilliant and necessary, "a spell for getting out of girlhood alive."

Papi

By Rita Indiana, translated by Achy Obejas

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University of Chicago Press, 152 pages, $20.98

Papi is the English-language debut of Dominican writer Rita Indiana, whom some readers may know as lead vocalist of alternative merengue group Rita Indiana y los Misterios. In the barest of plot descriptions, Papi is about our unnamed narrator, eight years old at the novella's outset, growing up in Santo Domingo while yearning for the attention of her distant father. From there, exact plot points are difficult to nail down, though an adult reader will have a general sense of what's really happening beneath the story's more fantastical elements. Better to know Papi through its prose style, which is freewheeling, baroque, braggartly and crude. For all her attempts to immortalize him, we get a far better picture of Papi through his daughter's imitation: Papi is a cocky, mean bastard who exults in his own overabundance. In addition to being a drug lord, he's a terrible father, but his daughter loves him. "My Papi has more of everything than your papi." A poignant debut.

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