Cantoras (Knopf, 2020) is Carolina De Robertis’s fifth novel and swept me away by page ten. I was expecting a cheesy romance novel about women who just wanted to have a little fun with each other behind their husbands’ backs; what I got instead was a raw, powerful novel with gorgeous prose and salty scenes that examines sexuality, attraction, and political governing of women’s bodies in a late-twentieth century Uruguyan landscape.
Set during a period of terrifying political oversight and tyranny, the story follows five women (Flaca, La Venus, Malena, Paz, and Romina) as they leave their city for the privacy and sanctuary of a secluded beach, where they can be free to express their not-so-straight sexualities and talk about the regime without fear of being overheard and turned into the military. The historical significance of this book created a deep admiration and gratitude in me for what so many folks in other countries endure in order to love who they want to love; I’ve never had to experience real persecution for being queer, and I became acutely aware of that privilege while reading this book.
I loved the characters, even in the midst of flawed decisions and drama. Their allegiance to each other and the ways they continue to care for each other throughout the years, even after messy break-ups, even through secrets and childhood traumas, is incredible and a rare occurence in most of the novels I’ve read. De Robertis is a profound thinker and a skilled writer whose sentences pile into a rush of moment and emotion:
What was she doing. What had she been thinking, what— and then the woman appeared in the small bathroom and without a word turned off the light and locked the door. Dark. Limbs. Heat, body. She so close, waiting, and Paz for a single instant terrified that she would lose this chance because she was too awed to move, but then she did move and the woman’s mouth was everything, was joy in her mouth, her skin a balm to fingertips, her breathing sharp as they kept on in absolute silence, there could be no sound, no words, only touch and rhythm…
I highly recommend this book to anyone wanting a new perspective or craving realistic, high-quality queer lit. You’ll find friends in this story and feel their pain and celebrate their joy. You’ll long for a beach hut of your own, where you can swim in the ocean away from the stress-inducing political nightmare we’re living in today. And most importantly, you’ll respect the hell out of folks who live their true selves despite overwhelmingly animosity and the threat of oppression.
Cantoras is available from your local bookseller for $26.95 or from your local library for free.