Saturday, April 13, 2013

Their Dogs Came With Them by Helena Maria Viramontes

Four teenage girls come of age in 1960’s East LA.

I like reading about teenage girls, the 1960’s and LA, so for the most part, I was absorbed by this strange incantatory book. The novel tells the stories of four strong young women: Turtle, the tall girl disguised as a boy, disgusted by her femininity; Ana, the protector of a schizophrenic brother; Ermila the orphan tempted by lust; and Tranquilina, the holy girl who helps her family feed the homeless. Sadness permeates the pages. I hesitate to call this a novel, as a novel implies a journey between point A and point B, and these girls never really meet, except for a page or two at the end. Rather, the structure here is Point A, Point A, Point A... About a fifth of the way through, I thought, when is all this stuff coming together? About halfway through, I realized, it’s not. The narrative sequence was tragic slice of life after tragic slice of life, and the “chapters” don’t even function as short stories. It would have been better if the characters had a problem to solve apart from Fate crushing their hopes. But still I cared about these girls and kept reading.

I would also describe this book as a lyrical history of East LA, and I was consistently entertained by the descriptive though somewhat “writerly” writing. There’s a hallucinatory feel to the endeavor – like what is the Quarantine Authority, these police-like figures keeping the inhabitants trapped in East LA – did that actually happen? Were the police controlling for the spread of rabies – so why then when Ermila gets bitten by a dog, is she so matter of fact about it? Was the reader supposed to be concerned about her? The ending is frankly incoherent and lacks the emotional resonance it was probably supposed to carry.

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