The Remainder is a novel about what it means to be a hostage to someone else’s past. Set in Chile, it is centred on the grown-up children of three anti-Pinochet militants who are traumatised by a conflict they played no part in. They do not remember the events that haunt their parents, but nor are they ever going to be allowed to forget.
As the former dissidents try to exorcise their ghosts by endlessly articulating their pain, their children’s lives become warped and claustrophobic. For Iquela, daughter of Consuelo, the fall-out from the years of dictatorship is all-pervasive. She learns another language –English – to drown out her mothers’ words. But she is trapped by the old stories and the constant reminder that “I do all this for you.”
The Remainder tells us little about Chile under Pinochet, but everything’s about what it is like to grow up in the shadow of other people’s unhappiness
It is only when Consuelo’s former sister-in-arms dies in exile, and her equally damaged daughter Paloma seeks to repatriate her body, that Iquela manages to escape her mother’s clutches. With the coffin stuck en route in Mendoza, Argentina, she, Paloma and Felipe – the disturbed son of a third dissident – set off in a hearse to track it down and bring it home.
To describe Alia Trabucco Zerán’s debut novel as “dark” would be like calling the Arctic nippy. Much of it is set during an ash storm which renders everything grey and blots out the scenery, if not the anguish.
The chapters are narrated alternately by Iquela and Felipe. Felipe’s chapters are a stream-of-consciousness expression of his mental disintegration. He sees corpses everywhere: in doorways, on park benches, floating in the river. Obsessed by numbers, he counts them, subtracting in the hopes of reaching zero, with no remainder. He is also obsessed with the carcasses of birds and with scabs and eyeballs. Felipe’s repetitive and macabre fantasies intensify the stifling atmosphere, but there is perhaps not enough fleshing out of how he became so flesh-fixated.
The other chapters follow the relationship between Iquela and Paloma, which is sometimes sexual. Iquela has been intrigued by Paloma since a fleeting childhood encounter at her parents’ house. Slightly older than Iquela, Paloma is a corruptive influence, but she is also a potential source of liberation.
Yet, in the end, the dynamic among the three protagonists is as destructive as the dynamic between the generations; they are bound by their inability to move on. Despite the political backdrop, The Remainder tells us very little about Chile under Pinochet; but everything about what it is like to grow up in the shadow of other people’s unhappiness.
Though Heavy by Kiese Laymon is very different in style, there are common threads. A memoir of growing up an overweight black boy in Mississippi, Laymon is the victim of his brilliant mother’s hopes for his future. Always conscious of the discrimination he will face, she drives him to better himself and beats him into submission when he disobeys.
The book – written in the second person, directly to her, is a deeply unsettling read, exploring the blurred lines between love and abuse and the legacy of familial lies. Like Felipe, Laymon, now an English professor, is preoccupied with bodies, chiefly his own. While his mother gambles, his addiction is food and he swings from comfort-binging to starving himself. Like many black boys born in the years after the Civil Rights Movement, however, the true weight he bears is that of US history.
The Remainder, Alia Trabucco Zerán (And Other Stories, from £10.00)
Heavy, Kiese Laymon (Bloomsbury, £12.99)