Monday, March 22, 2021

How to Order the Universe by María José Ferrada (Translated by Elizabeth Bryer): A review

 


María José Ferrada is a Chilean journalist and writer of books for children. Now she has written this quirky little book for us adults. It is her first book to be translated into English and I read the translation by Elizabeth Bryer. It reads flawlessly as if its first language had been English.

Ferrada's first foray into adult fiction has a child as its narrator. At the start of the book, the child narrator who is identified only as M is seven years old and she adores her father, a traveling salesman who hawks Kramp hardware products in small towns across Chile. She is fascinated by her father's work and longs to be a part of it. Her wish is fulfilled when her father agrees to let her skip school and travel with him as he attempts to make his sales. All of this, of course, must be kept secret from her mother who would not approve and who seems to be emotionally absent from her daughter's life. Thus, M and D (the father) go on their adventures and the life of the traveling salesman becomes an alternative education for M. She learns all sorts of hardware-related information as well as about the weaknesses of the human heart and the unique moral code of the salesman. Her presence actually enhances her father's chances of making a sale as she preys on the emotions of his customers. Soon she is missing school for weeks at a time in order to be a partner in her father's work. 

At first it is not clear but gradually we recognize that these events are taking place in the time of Pinochet and things get a bit more complicated when another person joins the two in their travels. He is a photographer and he is looking for "ghosts," people who have disappeared. The photographer, known as E, is particularly interested in one disappeared person who was his best friend. Coincidentally - or perhaps not - we learn that he was also the first love of M's mother. Thus, the story which started out as a charming little tale of a father-daughter relationship takes a darker turn. E's activities do not go unremarked by the government and the story which has been moving along quickly is brought up short by a scene of horror. M, in her innocence, had been completely unaware of the darker side of Chilean society in the Pinochet era, and she struggles to understand and to find a new way to relate to her family and to the wider world.

This book though quite short and easily read in one sitting encompasses a wide range of emotions as a precocious child attempts to understand the world and to find a safe place for herself in it. Ferrada obviously understands the sensitivity of children and of the way their minds work and she excels in conveying all of this in her prose. Her writing is powerful and she draws us into M's consciousness and makes us see things through her eyes. The early part of the book reads almost like a fairy tale and it is often quite funny. The latter part as M and we as readers become aware of what is truly happening in her society and how it affects people for whom she cares is a much darker tale. The book leaves us with much to consider and that sense lingers long after we've read the final sentence.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

12 comments:

  1. A good book translator is hard to find and it seems that a really competent job was done with this one. Bravo! It opens it up for so many more to enjoy.

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    1. Exactly. I might have been able to struggle through the Spanish version, but I greatly appreciated being able to read it in English, especially since it is a wonderful book.

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  2. Oh my, this sounds like my kind of book. Thank you for introducing it to me.

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    1. I feel confident in saying that you would like it, Judy.

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  3. I just love when a book leaves you thinking after you finish it. This definitely sounds like a book that would fit in that alley.

    I love that the narrator is a child, ad a teacher I'm always interested in books like that! Adding it to the TBR, thanks!

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    1. I hope you enjoy it, Esther. It will definitely give you something to think about.

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  4. Glad you liked this one. I have not seen it around but I'm curious about Chile ... does it talk about the Pinochet era and happenings quite a bit?

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    1. As best I can recall, it never actually mentions the name of Pinochet but it makes clear that this is the era in which these happenings are set. At some point during the novel, one gets the pervasive sense of dread that all is not well and that there is danger all around. Since we are experiencing this through a child's eyes and sensibilities, we don't necessarily understand the source of that dread and danger.

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  5. I love translated works when they are done right. I also love children as narrators, generally so honest and innocent. I think I'd like this one from what you've told us.

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    1. If you decide to read it, I do hope you like it as much as I did.

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  6. Wow, what a powerful sounding novel! This book sounds like an excellent read and I'll be adding it to my ever growing reading wishlist.

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    1. I hope this book does find an audience. It deserves to be read.

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