From the author of 2021 National Book Award Finalist The Bitch
Claudia is an impressionable eight-year-old girl, trying to understand the world through the eyes of the adults around her. But her hardworking father hardly speaks a word, while her unhappy mother spends her days reading celebrity lifestyle magazines, tending to her enormous collection of plants, and filling Claudia’s head with stories about women who end their lives in tragic ways. Then an interloper arrives, disturbing the delicate balance of family life, and Claudia’s world starts falling apart. In this strikingly vivid novel set in Cali,
From the author of 2021 National Book Award Finalist The Bitch
Claudia is an impressionable eight-year-old girl, trying to understand the world through the eyes of the adults around her. But her hardworking father hardly speaks a word, while her unhappy mother spends her days reading celebrity lifestyle magazines, tending to her enormous collection of plants, and filling Claudia’s head with stories about women who end their lives in tragic ways. Then an interloper arrives, disturbing the delicate balance of family life, and Claudia’s world starts falling apart. In this strikingly vivid novel set in Cali, Colombia, Claudia’s acute observations remind us that children are capable of discerning extremely complex realities even if they cannot fully understand them. Quintana leads us brilliantly into the lonely heart of the child we have all once been, driven by fear of abandonment.
- World Editions
- February 2023
- 168 Pages
“An eight-year-old girl takes in a series of troubling events in this luminous and transfixing account of fractured family life from Colombian writer Quintana (The Bitch). Readers will be dazzled.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
“What are the abysses that a girl, stunned by the mysteries of her family and the world, peers into? Her apartment is a jungle, her home a supermarket, her country a fog-enclosed mountain range obscuring the cliffs. Readers too fall, stunned, into Pilar Quintana’s abyss.” –Héctor Abad
“Pilar Quintana has created a powerful story that contrasts with the hopeless and doomed atmosphere that surrounds the protagonist. In subtle and brilliant prose, in which nature connects us with the symbolic possibilities of literature, the abysses are both real and intimate.” –JURY, Alfaguara Novel Prize 2021
“In a powerful, unsettling voice, Pilar Quintana explores the fears of childhood alongside the fragility and violence of adults. With lucidity, innocence, suspense and the labyrinths of desire, she draws an unforgettable map of the heartrending road to freedom.” –Irene Vallejo
“A voice of strength, one that takes us to the world of a young girl confronting adult reality from a visionary childhood, a truly important voice that resides in each of us and makes this novel so moving. Abyss is Pilar Quintana’s triple jump.” –Ana Merino
“A work built around small details that can define an entire continent.” —Vogue
1. The mother and daughter in the story both have the same name: Claudia. What, if anything, do you think is the relevance of this?
2. House plants feature vividly in the book, both in the apartment of our protagonists (where they are referred to as the jungle) and in the home of Gloria Iné What do you think these plants mean for the main characters: for the two women; for child-Claudia; for the father?
3. How many different abysses can you find within the novel, and how, if at all, are they negotiated?
4. Mother-Claudia is suffering from depression. What are its causes? What are its solutions? Who is to blame?
5. Can you see love in the novel? Do Claudia’s parents love each other? Do they love Claudia? Where do you see this? Are there any other instances of love in the story?
6. What do you see for Claudia’s future? Is it more hopeful than perhaps her mother’s was?
7. What do you think about all the female deaths alluded to in the book? Were they accidents, or … ? Why do you think Claudia’s mother chooses to see these events in the way she does? (How) does it help her?
8. What happened to Gonzales? Both his entry into and exit out of the novel remain obscure – what was his agenda do you think?
9. Claudia’s father is a man of few words, yet Claudia refers a number of times to the “monster” inside him. Does he appear more kind or more controlling to you?
10. Why did mother Claudia’s job fail?
11. We are given backstories to Claudia’s grandparents, both maternal and paternal, perhaps suggesting how we are tied by circumstance to our fates. Do you think this is true? Can you see other possible alternatives for the characters in the book? Was mother-Claudia’s father right not to let her go off with Patrick?
12. What does this story make you think about the rights and expectations of women in Colombian society? How does it compare with your own unbringing/environment?
13. It is clear that the women in this book suffer, but do you think the men suffer too? And if so, how?
14. This book is set in the 1980s—do you think things have changed?
THERE WERE SO many plants in the apartment that we called it the jungle.
The building looked like something out of an old futurist movie. Flat lines, overhangs, lots of gray, wide open spaces, huge windows. Our apartment was two stories, and the living-room window went all the way from the bottom of the first floor to the top of the second. Downstairs, the floor tiles were black granite with white veins. Upstairs, white granite with black veins. The staircase had black steel tubes and polished slabs for steps. A naked staircase, full of holes. The upstairs hall overlooked the living room, like a balcony, and had the same tube railing as the stairs. From there you could gaze down at the jungle below, sprawling in all directions.
There were plants on the floor and on tables, on top of the hi-fi and the buffet, between pieces of furniture, on wrought iron stands and in ceramic pots, hanging from the walls and ceiling on the stair- case’s lowest steps, and in places you couldn’t see from the upstairs: the kitchen, the laundry room, the guest bathroom. All kinds of plants. Sun, shade, water. A few, like red anthurium and white egret, had flowers. The rest were green. Ferns both smooth and curly, shrubs with striped leaves, spotted leaves, colorful leaves, palms, bushes, huge trees that grew well in planters, and delicate herbs that fit into my small hand.
Sometimes, walking through the apartment, I had the feeling the plants were reaching out with their finger-leaves, trying to touch me; and that the biggest ones, in a forest behind the three-seater sofa, liked to envelop the people sitting there or brush up against them and cause a fright.
Out on the street, two guayacanes obstructed the view from the balcony and living room. In the rainy season, their leaves fell off and the trees became covered in pink flowers. Birds would hop from the guayacanes onto the balcony. Hummingbirds and tropical kingbirds—the most intrepid—would pop in to nose around. Butterflies would flutter fearlessly from the dining room to the living room. Sometimes, at night, a bat would get in and fly around, low to the ground, looking lost. Mamá and I would scream. Papá would grab a broom and stand, motionless, in the middle of the jungle until the bat flew out the way it had come in.
In the afternoons a cool wind came down from the hills and swept over Cali. It stirred the guayacanes, blew in through the open windows, and rustled the indoor plants too. The racket it made sounded like people at a concert. In the afternoons, mamá watered. Water overflowed pots, filtered down through the dirt, seeped out the holes, and dripped onto the ceramic plates, trickling like a little stream.
I loved running through the jungle, letting the plants caress me, stopping in their midst, closing my eyes and listening to their sounds. The tinkle of water, the whisper of air, the nervous, agitated branches. I loved running up the stairs and looking down from the second floor, as if at the edge of a cliff, the stairs a fractured ravine. Our jungle, lush and savage, down below.
Mamá was always home. She didn’t want to be like my grandmother. She spent her whole life telling me so.
My grandmother slept till midmorning, so my mother had to go to school without seeing her. In the afternoons, my grandmother played lulo with her friends, meaning that four days out of five, when mamá got home from school her mother wasn’t there. The one day she was, it was because it was her turn to host the card game. Eight ladies at the dining room table, smoking, laughing, tossing down cards and eating pandebono cheese bread. My grandmother didn’t even look at mamá.
One time, at the club, mamá heard a woman ask my grandmother why she hadn’t had more children. “Ay, mija,” my grandmother said, “if I could have avoided it, I wouldn’t even have had this one.”
The two of them burst out laughing. My mother had just gotten out of the pool and was standing there dripping water. It felt, she said, like they’d ripped open her chest and reached in to tear out her heart.
My grandfather got back from work in the evening. He’d hug mamá, tickle her, ask about her day. But apart from that, she grew up in the care of maids, who came and went, one after the other, since my grandmother never liked any of them.
Maids didn’t last long at our house.
Yesenia was from the Amazon jungle. She was nineteen, with straight hair down to her waist and the rough-hewn features of the stone sculptures at San Agustín. We hit it off from the first day.
My school was a few blocks from our apartment building. Yesenia would walk me there in the morn- ings and be waiting for me when I got out in the afternoons. On the way, she’d tell me about where she was from. The fruits, the animals, the rivers wider than an avenue.
“That,” she said, pointing to Cali River, “is not a river; it’s a creek.”
One afternoon we went straight to her bedroom. A small room off the kitchen, with a bathroom and a tiny window. We sat facing each other on her bed. We’d discovered that she didn’t know any songs or hand games, and I was teaching her my favorite one, about dolls from Paris. She was getting it all wrong, and we were laughing our heads off. My mother appeared in the doorway.
“Claudia, come upstairs.” She looked super serious. “What’s wrong?”
“I said: come.”
“We were just playing.”
“Do not make me repeat myself.”
I looked at Yesenia. With her eyes, she told me to obey. I stood up and went. Mamá grabbed my schoolbag off the floor. We climbed the stairs, went into my room, and she closed the door.
“Never again do I want to see you getting friendly with her.”
“With any maid.”
“Because, my girl, she’s the maid.”
“Why does that matter?”
“Because you get attached to them and then they leave.”
“Yesenia doesn’t know anybody in Cali. She can stay with us forever.”
“Ay, Claudia, don’t be so naive.”
A few days later, Yesenia left without saying goodbye while I was at school.
My mother said she’d gotten a call from her hometown of Leticia, and had to return to her family. I suspected it was untrue, but mamá stuck to her story. Next came Lucila, an older woman from the Cauca region who paid no attention to me and was the maid who stayed with us the longest.
Mamá did her housewife things in the mornings, when I was at school. The shopping, the errands, the bills. At lunchtime she picked my father up from the supermarket and they had lunch together at the apartment. Then in the afternoons he drove back to work, and she stayed home to wait for me.
When I got home from school, I’d find her in bed with a magazine. She liked ¡Hola!, Vanidades, and Cosmopolitan. There, she read about the lives of famous women. The articles came accompanied by large color photos of houses, yachts, and parties. I ate lunch and she turned pages. I did homework and she turned pages. At four o’clock, the only tv station began its daily programming, and as I watched Sesame Street she turned pages.
Mamá once told me that shortly before graduating from high school she’d waited for my grandfather to come home from work, to tell him that she wanted to go to university. They were in my grandparents’ bedroom. He took off his guayabera, let it drop to the floor, and stood there in his undershirt. Big and hairy, with his taut round belly. A bear. Then he stared at her with strange-looking eyes she didn’t recognize.
“Law,” my mother dared to add.
My grandfather’s neck veins bulged, and in his gruffest voice he told her that what decent señoritas did was get married: university, law, his foot! His furious voice booming as if through a megaphone. I could practically hear it as my mother, just a girl, cowered and backed away.
Less than a month later he had a heart attack and died.
In the study, we had a wall where family portraits hung.
The one of my maternal grandparents was a black- and-white photo in a silver frame. It had been taken at the club’s New Year’s party, the last one my maternal grandparents had spent together. Streamers fell all around, people wore paper hats and held party blowers. My grandparents were just emerging from an embrace. Laughing. Him: a giant in a tux, bifocals, drink in hand. You couldn’t see his hair, but I knew, from other photos and from my mother, that it sprouted out from everywhere. His shirtsleeves, his back, his nose, even his ears. My grandmother was in an elegant, open-back dress, with a cigarette holder between her fingers and a bouffant hairdo. She was long and skinny, an upright worm. Beside him she looked diminutive.
Beauty and the Beast, I always thought, though my mother would defend her father, saying he was no beast, he was a teddy bear and only got mad that one time.
My grandfather worked his whole life in the sales department of an electrical appliance factory. He had big clients, earned a good salary, and made commissions on every sale. After he died there were no more commissions, and the pension my grand- mother received was a fraction of his salary.
My grandmother and mother were forced to sell the car, the club membership, and the house in San Fernando. They moved to a rental apartment in town, fired the live-in maids and hired one who went home at the end of the day. They stopped going to the beauty parlor and learned to do their own nails and hair. My grandmother’s was a short beehive, which she teased with a comb, using half a can of hairspray until it was piled up high. She forwent her lulo games, since hosting eight women every time it was her turn to entertain was too costly, and took up canasta, which was played with only four.
Mamá, fresh out of high school, began volunteering at San Juan de Dios Hospital, an activity grandfather would have approved of.
San Juan de Dios was a charity hospital. I never saw the inside but pictured it as filthy and dismal, with bloodstained walls and moribund patients groaning in the hallways. One day when I said so out loud, my mother laughed. Actually, she said, it was airy and luminous, with white walls and interior courtyards. A 1700s building, well taken care of by the nuns who ran it.
That was where she met my father.
My paternal grandparents’ portrait was oval, in a bronze openwork frame. They lived before my other grandparents’ time, in an age my child’s mind pictured to be as dark as the colors of the portrait.
This one was an oil painting of their wedding day, copied from a studio photograph, with a brown background and opaque details. The bride was the only luminous thing in it. A girl of sixteen. She was sitting on a wooden chair. Her wedding dress covered her from neck to shoes. She wore a mantilla and a demure smile, and held a rosary in her hands. It looked like she was getting confirmed, like the groom was really her father. He stood, one hand on her shoulder, like an old wooden post. A brittle man, bald, in a gray suit and thick glasses.
My grandmother, that girl, was not yet even twenty when she died giving birth to my father. They lived on my grandfather’s coffee farm. Grandfather moved to Cali. Devastated by the loss, I assumed. A forlorn man in no state to take care of anyone. The newborn and his sister, my tía Amelia, who was two, stayed on the farm and were cared for by a sister of the deceased.
Tía Amelia and my father were raised on that farm. When the time came, their aunt enrolled them at the local school, where the children of peas- ants and workers went. In second grade, when their shoes got too small, the aunt hacked off the tips with a knife and they went to class with their toes poking out.
“Were they poor?”
This was my tía that I was asking; she’s the one who told me the story.
“Ha! Not in the slightest. The farm was prosperous.”
“Then why didn’t they buy you new shoes?”
“Who knows,” she said, then paused and added, “my father never visited us.”
“Because he was sad about your mother’s death?” “No doubt.”
The aunt fell ill. There was nothing the doctors could do, and after she died the children were sent to be with their father in Cali. He sold the coffee farm and opened the supermarket.
Tía Amelia and my father lived with my grandfather until they were grown up. He developed emphysema, since he smoked two packs a day, and died long before my time. That was when the two of them inherited the supermarket.
My tía Amelia knew everything that went on at the supermarket, but she didn’t work there. She spent all day at the apartment in a housedress, cigarette in hand, with a glass of wine if it was night. She had housedresses in every style and color. Mexican, Guajiran, Indian, tie-dyed, Cartago embroidered.
Whenever her birthday or Christmas was coming up, my mother would complain that she didn’t know what to get her. In the end, she’d give her a housedress. My aunt always received the gift with what seemed like authentic joy and said that she loved it, that she didn’t have this style, or that this precise color was exactly what she needed.
My father was the supermarket manager. He never took vacations. The only time he wasn’t working was when the supermarket was closed, on Sundays and holidays. He was the first to arrive in the morning, the last to leave in the evening, and sometimes had to go in to receive delayed shipments in the middle of the night. Saturdays, after closing, he used to go to San Juan de Dios Hospital to donate groceries for the infirm.
My mother was in the pantry, making space for the newly arrived food, when my father turned up. She didn’t notice him. He, on the other hand, was so taken that he went to ask the nun in charge who she was. The nun, in mamá’s words, was short and squat. The stump of a felled tree, that was how I pictured her, brown habit flaring at the bottom.
“The new volunteer,” she told my father. “Her name is Claudia.”
He and the nun stood gazing at my mother.
“And she’s single,” she added.
Perhaps that was what gave him courage. My father waited until she finished her shift. He approached, introduced himself, and offered to accompany her home. She, all of nineteen, looked him up and down and saw a forty-something-year-old man.
“No, thank you,” she replied.
My father didn’t give up. He’d turn up at the hospital with chocolates, pistachios, or some other delicacy he’d bought at La Cristalina, a shop that sold fancy imported goods. Mamá refused his gifts.
“Jorge,” she said one day, “are you never going to grow tired of this?”
“I brought you Danish butter cookies.”
They came in a big tin and my mother couldn’t resist. She took it.
“So, today do I get to accompany you home?” This time she couldn’t say no.