Claudia Piñeiro's Thursday Night Widows is an interesting novel. Published by the wonderfully named Bitter Lemon Press, which is now a favorite (I'll be taking a close look at their backlist), it's a crime novel with little attention paid for the greater part of the story, to the actual crime. It opens with the deaths of three men, but there are no detectives, no investigation and almost no concern with who perpetrated the crime. Rather this is a dissection of the small, tight-knit community where the deaths took place. The story doesn't revolve so much around the discovery of the who as to an illumination of the why, very much reminiscent of Barbara Vine's exceptional psychological novels.
Outside Buenos Aires The Cascade is a beacon to those upwardly mobile and affluent families with cash to burn and lavish lifestyles to pursue.
"Our neighbourhood is a gated community, ringed by a perimeter fence that is concealed behind different kinds of shrub. It's called The Cascade Heights Country Club. Most of us shorten the name to "The Cascade" and a few people call it "The Heights". It has a golf course, tennis courts, swimming pool and two club houses. And private security. Fifteen security guards working shifts during the day, and twenty-two at night. That's more than five hundred acres of land, accessible only to us or to people authorized by one of us."
Ronie and Virginia Guevara were one of the first couples to invest in a posh property at The Cascade, and not just as a weekend retreat but as a permanent home. The 1990s saw a financial boom that meant fortunes were made and families could lead lives of privilege completely unknown to those living outside those gates. Over time more and more families, and it is always only families, move to The Cascade. The Cascade is a community of elegant homes with perfectly manicured lawns. Impeccably groomed husbands set off for the office early in their Land Rovers. And their equally impeccably groomed wives spend their afternoons learning to paint pretty pictures and take classes in the arts of flower arranging and feng shui. Their children go to the best school where they can learn to speak perfect English. Weekends are spent playing rounds of golf or tennis doubles. And everyone is friends. By all appearances this is a picture perfect little community. But there's a darker side.
Soon after the opening of the novel, however, cracks begin to show on the shiny veneer of The Cascade and the lives of it's residents. On Thursday September 27, 2001, just weeks after the Twin Towers fell in New York City, three men lay dead at the bottom of 'El Tano' Scaglia's swimming pool. The widows of the novel are the wives whose husbands spend Thursday nights playing cards and drinking, though now ironically they are widows literally as well as figuratively. Except Virginia. Ronie came home from that last card game early.
The novel quickly sweeps backwards in time and the reader gets an accounting of the various families and how they came to end up living in The Cascade. Claudia Piñeiro has an interesting narrative style, perhaps not so surprising since she was a journalist, playwright and scriptwriter. She writes in a crisp, precise and direct prose and uses both first and third person perspectives. Virginia tells much of the story in her own voice, and she knows a lot about The Cascade since she is an estate agent and sold most of the properties. She knows their stories. But the reader also learns about the other women and their families. There's a long cast of characters, but Piñeiro manages to convey a distinct impression of the lives these people lead even if characters come and go. Few of them are especially likable, but I found them intensely fascinating. As the story progresses the lives of the characters begin spinning out of control. Reading this novel was a little like being a fly on the wall privy to all that happens--good or bad, and the deeper you look under the surface, usually it was bad.
Thursday Night Widows is really as much a contemporary morality tale as a crime novel. Money doesn't bring happiness and every bubble must burst, which it did financially in Argentina beginning in 2001. Piñeiro slowly reveals the truths behind the facade that The Cascade is. The contrast between those in this wealthy gated community and those living in poverty just outside the barriers couldn't be starker. Despite their outwardly idyllic appearance, the residents of The Cascade couldn't have emptier or more untruthful lives. Perhaps morally bankrupt really is the best term, but not just morally but financially as well. All the dirty little secrets begin coming out--indiscretions, infidelities, prejudices, jealousies and lies. Piñeiro rips open and leaves bare the souls of these people.
By the time the denouement is revealed I wasn't especially surprised though she does an excellent job building up to it, but that didn't in any way leave me disappointed. Piñeiro manages to twist things around at the end just a little, which I found satisfying. This is a story, or rather a lesson, that could easily be applied to any number of places in the western world today, but Piñeiro gives this story a decidedly cultural slant to it. Although these events could happen anywhere, this particular story is set firmly just outside Buenos Aires, Argentina. It was an interesting look at a place I know little about.
Thursday Night Widows won the Clarín Prize for fiction in 2005. This has been made into a movie directed by Macelo Piñeyro. You can see the trailer for Las Viudas de los Jueves here. I'm hoping it makes its way to the US eventually, as the novel had a cinematic quality to it that would translate well into film. I've already started reading German author Petra Hammesfahr's The Lie next, which is another Bitter Lemon title. Hopefully all their books will be the same high caliber as Thursday Night Widows. And hopefully more of Claudia Piñeiro's books will be translated into English.