Publisher: Daunt Books
Publication Date: 25th February 2020
Translated by: Sophie Hughes
I’m writing this review in December 2020 after swearing blind that I wasn’t going to read any 2021 proofs until 2021 rolled around. When Empty Houses by Brenda Navarro dropped through my letterbox I had to abandon that plan. I read this book in one sitting.
Set in Mexico, the book opens with a mother explaining how her 3 year old son Daniel was abducted from a play park whilst she was supposed to be looking out for him. She is wracked with guilt not only because he disappeared when in her care, she also was heavily invested in reading messages from her secret lover on her mobile phone at the time. She can’t provide the police with much evidence as she wasn’t looking out for her child so didn’t see or hear anything, so absorbed was she in her lovers messages.
We then start to get an idea of what she was like as a mother as she travels back in time to describe her relationship with her husband Fran up to the point of her making the decision to have a child. A decision which was borne out of her attempting to assuage her guilt regarding her affair and hoping that a child with Fran would break the bond she had with her lover Vladimir.
‘Do you know I lost my son because I was reading your messages? And what have you done about it? Cheapen my life, that’s what you’ve done, turn my life into a joke. Do you know that, do you? What do you know? Nothing, you know absolutely nothing. Do you know I had a child as an excuse to get away from you? Could there be a stupider reason to have children? I had a child to keep you at arms length. And how idiotic of me, when in the end it was you who walked away…..’
Not only does she have the abduction of her son to deal with, she also has to take on the mothering role to Fran’s niece Naggore who’s own mother has been murdered by her father. Our narrator struggles to fulfil the role with Nagore when she feels like she wasn’t much of a mother to her own child. Why should she care about Nagore now that her own child is gone and why couldn’t it have been Nagore they lost?
Next we switch perspective to another unnamed narrator who is the young woman who abducted little Daniel. We start from the point of her swiping him off the park and into a taxi whereby she spirits him away to her own home on the opposite side of town.
She has been desperate to have a child of her own with her abusive and witholding boyfriend Rafael, however he has never really been sold on the idea. She renames Daniel as ‘Leonel’ and attempts to pass him off as a child of Raphael’s cousin.
What follows is a very interesting and often heartbreaking look at how these two women view motherhood and their suitability to the role. We have two very different and very distinct voices but both women struggle with knowing their worth and feeling such tremendous guilt about their misdemeanours.
The sections alternate between the two narratives which I always enjoy. Both voices were written very differently, which helped delineate the women. There was an immaturity to the way the child abductor was written and a sense of the vulnerability of the young behind her very outspoken and tough talking facade.
I’m always drawn to books which explore motherhood and this one was fascinating with all of its complexities and at times shocking truths. On the one hand we have Daniel’s mother, a woman who feels she made a mistake in getting pregnant and allowing another person to take over her body and her life. She feels the guilt of a woman who regrets having her own child and cannot place herself and how she should be feeling in the aftermath of his disappearance.
Then we have the abductor. A young girl who wants nothing more than a nice home, a child, a life partner, a family. But the only thing she can do is take this little boy away from his family to fulfil her own desperate needs. It is by no means an easy feat, as Daniel has autism and she struggles to look after him and keep her patience. However she feels the sacrifice is worth it to have someone who relies on her as a mother figure.
What I found most surprising and heartbreaking was the police reaction to Daniel’s disappearance. It almost seems like child abduction is a day to day occurrence and his mother Is told he will ‘turn up’. There are also references made to children being sold into pornography and Daniel’s mother and Fran even at once point have to identify the body of a young boy who isn’t Daniel where this has been the case.
This is a tale of motherhood, guilt, longing to belong, class and violence. (Trigger warnings for domestic abuse and miscarriage). It will divide opinion for sure in terms of where your loyalties lie as a reader.
As I said, I tore through this one in one sitting, it flows at a pace despite it not being linear timeline wise. There is no neat tying up of plot either and neither woman gets any redemption. A difficult and often troubling read but worth it.
Thank you Jimena Gorraez and Daunt Books for my review copy.
See you all soon.
Amanda – Bookish Chat xxx