In 1985, the world watched as a thirteen-year-old girl, Omayra Sánchez, slowly died as she stood trapped in debris after a volcanic eruption in the Tolima region of Colombia. Pinned down by the ruins of her own house, Omayra’s dead aunt’s arms were locked around her niece’s legs and feet. Given the equipment on the ground there was no way to get Omayra out. She survived for several days as gangrene and hypothermia set in; by the time she died, her fingers had become white and her eyes had turned completely black.
Even more than the legacy of the military junta in Argentina that led to the death or ‘disappearance’ of thousands of people, Omayra’s story haunts the pages of Our Share of Night, the first of Mariana Enríquez’s novels to be translated into English. Alongside these real horrors, Enríquez gives us a terrifying shadow-story that revolves around the cult of the ‘Darkness’, whose followers believe it can offer them eternal life despite its destructive mutilations when it manifests via a medium. When Our Share of Night opens in 1981, the only medium is Juan, a seriously ailing man born with a congenital heart condition whose body has also broken down through being forced to manifest the Darkness. Juan is desperate to protect his young son, Gaspar, who is the cult’s next target – if Gaspar doesn’t inherit his father’s powers, they plan to transfer Juan’s consciousness into Gaspar’s body so Juan can live on after his impending death.
Despite its 736 pages, Our Share of Night has a straightforward plot and a small cast of characters. Even in its side-stories we focus tightly on Juan, Gaspar and the Darkness. And here, I think, is one reason why I so admired Enríquez’s ambition and many of her set-pieces, but found the book such a painfully slow read. Yes, it’s long, but it doesn’t normally take me five weeks to get through a book of this length; I read Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise, which is almost exactly the same length, in less than two. Like To Paradise, I’d suggest that this book is best approached as a collection of novels and novellas rather than as a single work. But unlike To Paradise, the unity of theme and character between the different sections makes Our Share of Night feel much more repetitive. I think the only section that completely worked for me was the short-story-length ‘The Zañartú Pit’, set in 1993, where we see anthropologist Olga Gallardo exploring the remnants of these dark rites in a Guaraní village devastated by the military coup, unaware of exactly what she’s getting herself into.
And maybe this was my favourite section because it really is the only section where Enríquez truly weaves together the horrors of Argentinian history and the terror of the cult of the Darkness. Throughout the rest of the novel, these are very much two separate stories, with the Darkness almost standing in for the junta rather than reflecting and illuminating it. Perhaps I am at fault here as well; I know very little about this period in Argentina and, if I knew more, the parallels might be more obvious. But I do think that Enríquez was going for something akin to Julianne Pachico’s The Anthill or Violet Kupersmith’s Build Your House Around My Body, which both entwine the violent history of a country (Colombia and Vietnam respectively) with more supernatural gore and horror.
Omayra, then, feels more present in the novel than anything done by the military junta because she is the figure that haunts the set of characters who are the only ones who really come to life: Gaspar’s childhood friends, Pablo, Vicky and Adela. And this gives me another reason why this book was so difficult to drag myself through: ultimately, I didn’t care what happened to Juan or to Gaspar. They never felt like real people to me. Perhaps this was a deliberate choice by Enríquez; touched by the weirdness of the Darkness, Gaspar is set apart from his three, more human friends. But again, I thought of another brick of a novel that I found much easier to read, and re-read: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Gaspar shares something with the traumatised Theo, but despite Theo’s story meandering almost as badly as Gaspar’s at times (get out of Las Vegas, please!!!), I stayed with it because I was so invested in Theo. And unlike The Goldfinch, which pulls off a stonking final section that fully repays the reader’s investment, Our Share of Night manages to rush its climax.
This is a very difficult novel to sum up, because despite the fact that I did not enjoy reading most of it, I know that it will absolutely stay with me; and there are sections where Enríquez’s prose, as translated by Megan McDowell, is extraordinarily powerful. I’ll definitely be reading Enríquez’s translated short story collections. Still, the pacing is hopeless, and the horror only intermittent. I can’t in good conscience recommend it.
I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It was left over from my R.I.P XVII challenge (though I have been reading it since October 8th!)