Eartheater by Dolores Reyes. New York: Harper Collins, 2020, 207 pages, $24.99
An unnamed young girl from an Argentine barrio hungers for the taste of soil in her mouth as she prepares for the pauper’s burial of her dead mother. Barely pubescent in appearance, the girl is living in a dilapidated house in the barrio with her older brother Walter tended by an indifferent aunt. An abusive father is mentioned, but he’s disappeared without explanation by the time of the mother’s death.
Even though the visions inspired by dirt-eating lead to solving local missing persons cases and murders, the girl is taunted by her schoolmates and shunned by relatives who fear her unnerving paranormal abilities. The girl drops out of school and is abandoned by any adult supervision. She leads an isolated life shut in her home punctuated with visits from her teenage brother’s friends who gather to play video games and drink cheap beer and Yerba Mate at the house late into the night.
The girl’s only other human contact is with the many neighborhood supplicants who leave glass bottles of soil and mud at her doorstep with contact information in the hopes that she can summon visions of the disappeared. She’s selective about which missing persons she pursues and sometimes lies to survivors to preserve their illusions of dead loved ones.
The girl’s first romantic relationship with a friend of her brother’s ends precipitously when their lives are threatened by a murderer that she’s helped to catch. Her hallucinatory dreams are also punctuated by conversations and admonitions from Señorita Ana, a dead former schoolteacher who was the victim of an unsolved murder and seems to be trying to warn her about something. Initial indications are that Señorita Ana may have been the victim of sexual violence.
The girl also forms an unlikely attachment with a young police officer named Ezequiel, whom she meets when summoned to help him find a missing relative. Ezequiel is a steadying influence who tries to dissuade the girl from youthful gang and street violence in the barrio, but ultimately represents a doomed love affair.
“Eartheater” is a haunting coming-of-age novella about place, gender, identity, and the consequences of being different and bearing the burden of things best left unknown. First time novelist Dolores Reyes is a teacher, mother, and feminist activist born in Buenos Aires. “Eartheater” was originally published under the name Cometierra in Latin America and belongs to the tradition of magical realism in Hispanic fiction.
Lisa Kobrin in the Reference Services Manager for ACPL. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.