Advertisement
Books

The Remainder, Alia Trabucco Zerán: Heavy, Kiese Laymon

Dani Garavelli is absorbed in the tale of three Chileans trying to exorcise the ghosts of a war-ravaged past

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.

Advertisement
Advertisement

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)

Advertisement

Support your local vendor

Want to buy a copy of the magazine? We have over 1,200 Big Issue vendors in the UK. Each vendor buys a copy of the mag for £1.50 and sells it for £3, keeping the difference. Visit our interactive map to find your nearest vendor and support them today!

Recommended for you

Read All
'You're rewarded for being funny, not being right': How Oxford Tory 'chums' came to run the country
Politics

'You're rewarded for being funny, not being right': How Oxford Tory 'chums' came to run the country

River Clyde by Simone Buchholz review: A daring, original crime story
Book review

River Clyde by Simone Buchholz review: A daring, original crime story

The scientific reason hate is on the rise
Books

The scientific reason hate is on the rise

Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield review: A mystical thriller with serious depth
Book reviews

Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield review: A mystical thriller with serious depth

Most Popular

Read All
The remarkable rise of Ncuti Gatwa: From sofa surfing and Sex Education to Doctor Who
1.

The remarkable rise of Ncuti Gatwa: From sofa surfing and Sex Education to Doctor Who

Boris Johnson set to scrap plan to let workers keep tips despite admitting minimum wage isn’t enough to live on
2.

Boris Johnson set to scrap plan to let workers keep tips despite admitting minimum wage isn’t enough to live on

Life On Mars sequel has ‘a lot of travelling in time and car chases’, John Simm reveals
3.

Life On Mars sequel has ‘a lot of travelling in time and car chases’, John Simm reveals

The controversial new laws rushed through by the government this week
4.

The controversial new laws rushed through by the government this week

Keep up to date with The Big Issue. The leading voice on life, politics, culture and social activism direct to your inbox.