Saturday, 20 September 2008

Book Review: Laura Alcoba's The Rabbit House

I mentioned the review of this book in the Guardian on this blog recently, and then coincidentally, a friend sent me a copy. So here we go:
It all started when my mother said to me: 'So you see, we'll have a house with a red tile roof and a garden, too. Just like you wanted...'
Laura is a little girl in Argentina in the 1970s, who likes dolls, and animals, and attention from her parents. A normal little girl. But normality in Argentina in the 1970s can be terrifying.

Laura's parents are Montoneros, leftist militants who oppose the regime of President Isabel Peron, the widow of the famous General. The state fights back with clandestine death squads and the guerrillas are forced to go underground. Laura's father is imprisoned and she becomes trapped in a world of hideaways, secret rooms, changed names, and fear.
I thought of things that hurt a great, great deal, things with big rusty nails or lots of little knives hidden inside them. And the woman, who didn't open her mouth. And then I thought, deep inside, that to be a strong woman was to keep quiet like that.
This is a slight book, barely 150 pages and written in simple, flowing language from the point of view of a child. Its explanation of Laura's understanding of her situation is completely convincing and I, at least, have never read about the coup from the point of view of a child in hiding before. It's almost painful to empathise with Laura's guilt when, quite innocently, she puts the rest of the group at risk by childish slip-ups - such as being unsure which surname she is currently suppsed to be using. From that point of view I highly recommend this book.

I do wonder if it contains enough background material to be really satisfying for the general reader, but then perhaps it would serve to pique such a reader's curiosity to find out more about the Argentine dictatorship. There is little explanation of historical events here, it is purely a personal voice. The final chapter, in which the adult Alcoba discusses her eventual return to Argentina and meeting with the grandmother (and founder of the Grandmothers' organisation) Chicha Mariani, does shed some light on the connection of Laura's story with that of the stolen babies, and on the other characters in the book. So, anyone who would be tempted by the tone of the book to regard it as a novel, think again; this really happened.

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