The tagline for Brenda Navarro’s debut describes Empty Houses as a novel about abduction that asks: is motherhood the greatest crime of all? This is an intriguing question that doesn’t quite get unpacked in the story that follows. But Navarro does succeed in painting two very different pictures of motherhood, both deeply troubled in their own ways, in the book’s split narratives.
The first perspective engages from the beginning: a middle-class Mexican woman whose autistic toddler, Daniel, disappeared some months earlier in a local park. Traumatised by his absence and by her own ambivalence to motherhood, the narrator tells a searing tale of a woman who thought motherhood might be a remedy to an unsatisfactory life and now believes she is paying the ultimate price.
In the wake of the disappearance, her voice is brutal and fatalistic. Her marriage to Fran is on the rocks, though it is fair to say that this was the case before Daniel disappeared. At one point, she confesses that she decided to have a child with Fran as a way to stop having an affair with another man.
These are the kinds of stories we don’t see all that often in fiction. Famously ambivalent mother characters, such as the protagonist of Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child and Eva Khatchadourian in Lionel Shiver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, ground their ambivalence in problematic offspring. In Empty Houses, Daniel is an innocent, which makes his mother’s doubt and regret all the more interesting. It is safe to say that this is not a book for conservative, alt-right-leaning individuals.
Stark and original
Navarro studied sociology and feminist economics at university in Mexico City and has a master’s in gender studies from the University of Barcelona. In 2016 she founded #EnjambreLiterario, a group of writers who promote writing by women, and she now lives in Madrid.
In Empty Houses, her descriptions of the toll of motherhood are strange, stark and original: “Breastfeeding is the reflex of mothers who, given that they can’t eat their young, wish to smother them instead.” Elsewhere she likens pregnancy to an invasion, where the woman is a vessel for other forms of life: “Because that is what we women must do: be empty houses ready to accommodate life or death, but, when it comes down to it, empty.”
Navarro is excellent on the impact of a missing child, on both the mother and the marriage. While the narrator sits at home, wallowing in her loss, she resents her husband’s attempts to get their lives back on track: “But how much goodness is there, really, in a man who doesn’t spend every day grieving the loss of his child?”
The book is full of thought-provoking questions (“When does a home become a home, and what makes one?”), though Navarro has a frustrating tendency to leave them hanging. Another example of this is in her relationship with her adopted daughter, Nagore, of who she says: “On hearing the word ‘girl’ I was hit by a foul smell, as if the word itself were a living thing.” But we never learn the root of the narrator’s disgust of girlhood, where it came from, why it continued to grow.
Elegant and fluid
The language in this first-narrative strain is elegant and fluid; the translation by Sophie Hughes won a PEN Translates Award last year: "It was my turn to frown: two sour lemons with thick, rough skins, testing our powers of civility out of respect for the death that loomed over us, staking its claim as the most important issue."
The second narrative voice is deliberately plainer – the story of a damaged working-class girl who kidnaps Daniel – and the style as such is less able to hold our attention. A backstory of poverty, hardship and violence works for the most part to offset this issue (with echoes of Leila Slimani’s acclaimed debut, Lullaby, in the particulars), but there are minor plot holes and issues of credibility at times. We are left to wonder why the girl’s awful, self-serving boyfriend Rafael doesn’t just report the missing baby to authorities, if only to save himself some trouble, or indeed why his family chooses, for an unspecified time, to cover up the abduction on behalf of a woman they barely know.
Empty Houses is nonetheless a captivating debut from a writer to watch. The desperate world of missing persons is made vividly clear, from the ineptitude of the authorities in a country overrun with crime, to the feeling of “schizophrenic delusion” felt by parents left to wonder and wait, to the purgatorial endlessness of that wait, where even news of death would seem like relief.
As Navarro succinctly puts it, “There is no word for a mother who suddenly finds herself without the child she gave birth to.”