Books - International Booker Prize Shortlist: Elena Knows

Tony Cross is reading all the books on the International Booker Prize shortlist ahead of this year's awards on 26th May. Here are his thoughts on Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro, translated by Frances Riddle ...

Claudia Piñeiro's 'Elena Knows', translated by Frances Riddle, is the story of Elena, an old woman with Parkinson's disease whose daughter, Rita, was found hanging in the belfry of a Church. Everyone has written it off as a suicide. Except Elena who believes she knows her daughter well enough to know that she wouldn't do this. But Elena's body is betraying her, and she needs help. So, the book, which takes place in one day, is Elena's attempt to track down Isabel, a woman from Rita and Elena's past, who can give Elena the body she needs to find out what happened to Rita.

It's brilliantly written. The book is divided into three large sections, which revolve around Elena taking her medication. That allows her - temporarily - to escape from the prison of Parkinson's. There's a visceral quality to all of this. We feel what Elena feels. We understand her frustrations. She can barely lift her head, so her point of view is different to healthy people. And whilst Elena's day is the chronological backbone of the book the story itself is filled with flashbacks which help us to understand Elena and Rita's relationship. To know what Elena knows. Or doesn’t know.

This might, at first glance, seem like a whodunnit featuring a foul-mouthed, angrier Miss Marple whose home is an Argentinian small town, but it isn't. The mystery of Rita’s death is the book’s skeleton around which Piñeiro builds the books themes: motherhood, bodily autonomy and control, and the choices we are allowed or forced to make. Elena's medical condition, her daughter's death and Isabel's life are all interweaved, and the ending brings them together. It reminded me – oddly – of a feminist Graham Greene novel. If such a thing is possible.*

The finale is great. There was one point where I felt like the final piece of a thematic jigsaw had been clicked into place and I had to put the book down to applaud. It feels, by the end, that we have faithfully followed Elena's journey and can understand her, Rita, and Isabel better. This book is a great read both stylistically and structurally. It is a fine piece of both art and craft.

I have tried to avoid spoilers with this review, so I hope this isn't too vague. I'll put this down as one of the best books I've read in 2022 so far and recommend you read it. I'm also going to see if I can find more Claudia Piñeiro in translation.

* I’m prepared to accept this may be an incredibly stupid take but it is my review and I’m sticking with it.

Follow Tony on Twitter at @Lokster71

Image - Amazon

The 2022 International Booker Prize celebrates the finest fiction from around the world, translated into English.

The 2022 shortlist is:

Elena Knows, written by Claudia Piñeiro, translated by Frances Riddle from Spanish; published by Charco Press - Find the book on Amazon
Cursed Bunny, written by Bora Chung, translated by Anton Hur from Korean; published by Honford Star 
- Find the book on Amazon
A New Name Septology VI-VII, written by Jon Fosse, translated by Damion Searls from Norwegian; published by Fizcarraldo 
- Find the book on Amazon
Heaven, written by Mieko Kawakami, translated by Samuel Bett and David Boyd from Japanese; published by Pan Macmillan, Picador 
- Find the book on Amazon
Tomb of Sand, written by Geetanjali Shree, translated by Daisy Rockwell from Hindi; published by Tilted Axis Press 
- Find the book on Amazon
The Books of Jacob, written by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft from Polish; published by Fitzcarraldo Editions 
- Find the book on Amazon

The 2022 International Booker Prize winner will be announced on 26th May 2022.
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