This month, Nirica Srinivasan reviews Carolina De Robertis' Cantoras, a novel about resistance, love, and the power of the sea. Read on for her thoughts about the book, and buy it on our online bookstore.
In Uruguay, in 1977, it’s a struggle to be alive: under an authoritarian dictatorship, any kind of dissent is quelled, and people live in constant fear that they’ll be taken, “disappeared,” at the slightest notice. This kind of climate is stifling, for more reasons than one: in a time this fraught, to be discovered as homosexual is an unforgivable transgression.
Cantoras is a novel about five women who find something special—the freedom to be themselves. On an impulsive visit to an isolated cape away from the oppressive city, they find themselves faced with what feels like endless possibilities. The book follows Romina, Paz, Anita, Flaca, and Malena through decades, as they grow older, fall in and out of love with each other, and keep returning to the cape where they make their home.
Growing up by the coast, I have always found the sea an awe-inspiring force, something magical and intoxicating, and am always drawn to it in writing. Here, De Robertis captures the magic of the sea in evocative, gorgeous description:
“The world was more than she had known, even if only for this instant, even if only in this place. She let her lips part and the breeze glided into her mouth, fresh on her tongue, full of stars. How did so much brightness fit in the night sky? How could so much ocean fit inside her? Who was she in this place?”
"The sea and queerness have always been intertwined," writes Hannah Williams in a piece titled Modern Nature and Queer Literature’s Yearning for the Sea. "The waves were a liminal space, not bound to the rules of the societies on land." This is a personal favourite metaphor of mine: in Cantoras—much like in other media featuring queer relationships, most recently in movies like Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Moonlight—the sea and queerness become inextricably linked, symbolizing the unknown and the unknowable, but also symbolizing change, strength, and freedom. (Like ee cummings says: “it's always ourselves we find in the sea.”)
As expected of a novel set during a violent dictatorship, and of a novel about women who have to make up their own word to describe their attraction to other women, Cantoras is no light read. I found myself moved to tears at the end of almost every chapter, as the women come up against challenges from their government, their families, their pasts, even each other, even themselves. But the strength of their friendship shines through the novel, which manages to balance darkness and hope in equal measure. As the novel explores revolution and change amongst the five women, and in Uruguay as a whole, it reflects the same in the ocean’s strength and force, as the waves hit the shore. At its heart, Cantoras is a book about finding the strength to love, in so many of its forms: platonic, queer, among women, among friends, for yourself.
If you like Cantoras, you might like Girls Are Coming Out Of The Woods by Tishani Doshi; Latitudes of Longing by Shubhangi Swarup; and Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo.