Why you should care

Because there’s more to Chilean literature than Isabel Allende.

Women’s voices are rising above the din, making a resounding call for change. We’re being heard, sure, but are we being listened to? This question is answered, in part, by Marcela Serrano’s quiet, masterful novel, Ten Women, in which women are nothing but listened to — by each other, by their therapist, by the reader. Ten Women soothes the open wound that is womanhood.

You could be forgiven for thinking it was written in the last year or so, given how neatly it taps into the current zeitgeist of women’s anxieties, angst and general existential dread. In fact, this blissfully plot-free title was published in 2011.

Listen to the opening lines of Chapter 2, “Simona” in Spanish:


In
Ten Women, nine strangers offer monologues of their experiences to one another, having been congregated by the elusive tenth woman, Natasha, their mutual therapist. Despite remaining enigmatically absent for the bulk of the text, Natasha provides us with the preamble; she quietly observes her patients’ arrival, emphasizing her affection for them from the off (“It’s difficult for her to ignore the bursts of tenderness that strike her when it comes to these women”). Only in the final chapter do we learn Natasha’s story too. And, yes, there is closure, even though it might not be what you were expecting. Regardless, you’ll be sucked in by the kind of pure, unadulterated curiosity Serrano is a dab hand at conjuring.

The real fun begins when, in a 30-page-per-woman slow burn, Serrano unfurls the backstory of her protagonists.

But the real fun begins when, in a 30-page-per-woman slow burn, Serrano unfurls the backstory of her protagonists. Not only does she quite expertly explore several strata of Chilean society, covering ground in terms of sexuality (through Lupe, the teenage lesbian whose speech is inflected with bacáns, Chilean slang for “cool”), immigration (with Layla, the alcoholic Palestinian journalist) and class (thanks to Andrea the “you know me from TV” soapstar), she also manages to make each voice as superbly distinct and fully formed as the last. Serrano manages to turn the mundane into the compelling and, despite being entirely fictional, her evocations feel desperately real.

Listen to a reading from “Simona” in English:

Although you may not be familiar with her work — Ten Women was her first novel to receive the English-translation treatment — Serrano is no up-and-comer. Far from it. Rather, she’s a fully-fledged star of the Latin American literary set, up there with big names like Isabel Allende and Laura Esquivel, and has the shelf full of accolades for proof: three of her first four novels won prestigious prizes and another was turned into a film (Antigua Vida Mía).

While she also touches on politics, navigating both the tangled web of Chilean history and international unrest, I believe she’s at her best when writing about women, which she does frequently. As Stephanie Saunders, associate professor of Spanish at Capital University, notes: “Friendships and comradery are constant themes in her novels that encourage women — in Chile and beyond — to support each other in turn facilitating discourse, healing and self-growth.” It makes sense: As one of five daughters, Serrano’s childhood was presumably an extensive study in women’s relationships.

As for me, I finished my first read of Ten Women and immediately started over. Since then, my well-thumbed, dog-eared copy has accompanied me through several countries. I’m just now realizing why I go back to this book so often: It demonstrates that women’s stories are worth telling and, most importantly, believing. Ten Women is for the reader who needs to escape into a world where women are truly listened to — if only by one another.

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