Book review - Slash and Burn

Salvadorian writer Claudia Hernández’s immersive novel, superbly translated by Julia Sanches, explores war and its aftermath from a female perspective. Hernández never states the setting is El Salvador, places are referred to as “the farm named after a horse” or “that place named after insects”, and her characters are unnamed. During the conflict, “not knowing a person’s real name or where they were from was a safety measure”. Instead, they are referred to as “mothers”, “daughters” and “sisters”. This lends a universality to the text, reminding us that the brutalities of war are the same the world over.

As a young girl, Hernández’s main narrator follows her beloved father into the hills and becomes a guerrilla, fighting for the rights of the poor. There, she conceives her first daughter with a fellow combatant, but is forced to give her up for safe keeping. When the war ends, she discovers the nuns have sold her baby to a childless couple in France, “to help fund the cause”.

Years later, helped by a nameless organisation, she finds the means to visit her daughter in Paris but discovers that her firstborn is unwilling to form a relationship. The mother returns to her small rural community and continues to raise her four other daughters from two other partners. They endure a simple existence and the repercussions of their mother’s participation in the armed struggle remain an unspoken threat throughout their lives. Two of her daughters struggle to create a better future through education.

Hernández says she wants to convey “a grammar of emotions”. Using stream of consciousness and indirect speech, she creates a vivid sense of multiple voices overlapping and interrupting each other. Slash and Burn is undoubtedly a challenging read, as we have to unpack a layered narrative, but it is a brilliant evocation of civil war and its bitter legacy – the invisible scars, distrust, exploitation and the personal and political vendettas that persist long after the peace accord is signed.

Originally published by the Observer

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