Book Review: Carolina de Robertis's _Cantoras_

Book Review: Carolina de Robertis’s Cantoras

by Gina

This one is for all the messy lesbians out there.

CONTENT WARNING: sexual violence, abuse, conversion therapy, suicide

The title of this novel is the Spanish word for singers and an old slang word for lesbians (after the ones who “sing”). Set in late-1970s Uruguay in the wake of a crushed Communist movement, Cantoras follows five women through years of turmoil as they discover life, love, and lust. All of them have been touched by The Process, the term for the dictatorship’s purge of dissidents: Romina’s brother is a political prisoner, and she and another character experience imprisonment; no one can breathe in the city of Montevideo, where informants are behind every corner. The five carve out a place for themselves in the sleepy seaside village of Cabo Polonio; the safe haven they create sees them leave and return, with each other, with lovers new and old, and sometimes all alone.

Flaca, Romina, La Venus, Malena, and Paz are women of different ages, backgrounds, and lives, but they find the cantoras in one another and in themselves. This novel is an inspiring, frustrating, messy, beautiful depiction of queer love in a time of shadows. In their search for their own corner of the world, each woman struggles to live and be seen authentically. Some take multiple partners, some just one. Some experiment with their gender expression, and others do not. They (usually) come to understand each other, though it sometimes takes a few ex-girlfriends and a furtive phone call. Through breakups and make-ups, the group dynamic shifts from season to season, but always settles at a campfire by the ocean.

Be aware: Cantoras is heavy. It can be exhausting. Characters are forced to engage in sex work or are assaulted by their partners. Everyone lives part of their lives in the dark, which has negative impacts on their mental health and self-image. And always the threat of disappearance looms in soldiers and police and even family. It’s also really, really messy—I remember the exasperation with which I noted in my copy: “How many times can you cheat, girl, really?” My margins are peppered with little people pulling faces at how muddy relationships get at times (“you gon run off with her like that!? NOW???"). But de Robertis is real like that: we’re fighting for our lives, and sometimes we’re messy! And we aren’t deserving of love or respect or anything “despite” our messiness, we’re deserving regardless. Hell, we deserve the right to be messy!

Reading Cantoras left me with a weight. It is the sort of book that ends a bittersweet story on a bittersweet note, the sort that also leaves you in the depths to which it plumbs in telling its tale. It turns you face-up but lets you soak in it, because you cannot simply walk away from this book. It almost feels like some of these characters: one day, you’ll look upon it fondly, an ex-lover from long ago who’s cradled in your friend’s arms in the sand. You’re still learning from each other, despite how it’s all changed, because in some ways it’s all the same.