The entirely of this novel by Samanta Schweblin and translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell takes place in a single hospital room, over the course of an hour or two—basically the time it takes to read the book. A woman named Amanda is dying, and a man named David is asking her questions, trying to find the key moment in her story that will unlock everything before time is up. The whole book is their dialogue as she dies.
It goes like this:
But I’m going to die in a few hours. That’s going to happen, isn’t it? It’s strange how calm I am. Because even though you haven’t told me, I know. And still, it’s an impossible thing to tell yourself.
None of this is important. We’re wasting time.
But it’s true, right? That I’m going to die.
What else is happening in the yard?
Carla leans her forehead against the steering wheel and her shoulders start to shake a little; she’s crying. Do you think we could be close to the exact moment when the worms are born?
Keep going, don’t forget the details.
Amanda gradually dives deeper into her story, and it turns out that David is Carla’s son. Amanda was on vacation in Carla and David’s small rural town and became friendly with Carla. Now, David is coaxing her to remember a conversation she had with Carla. Gradually, the story leads to an accidental poisoning (maybe), a magical ceremony (could be), an exchange of souls (????)—or something.
This is the kind of book where the story is impossible to pin down. It’s more about impressions and images than a concrete story. It’s possible that the whole thing is just a fever dream. The book feels dreamlike in that time doesn’t make sense. People appear and disappear. Pain travels from one person to another.
One of the more interesting ideas in the book is that of a “rescue distance.” This is Amanda’s way of describing her awareness of her young daughter, Nina. She considers where Nina is and what Nina and doing and how long it would take to get to her and rescue her. That rescue distance is measured by the thread, and Amanda tries to conscious of how taut the thread is so she can keep her daughter safe.
Much of the book is concerned with mothers trying to protect their children and the impossibility of doing so. Too much is out of our human control to always stay in rescue distance. And that’s what Carla and Amanda are both learning to face.
As intrigued as I was by the mystery Amanda and David are trying to unlock, the book on the whole failed to really get to me. I suppose when it became clear to me that there wasn’t going to be an answer, I stopped caring. It wasn’t even so much that there were a few ambiguous possibilities—I would have loved that. Instead, there’s just weirdness on top of weirdness. It’s compelling weirdness, but, to me, it felt empty in the end.