Book Review: Fish Soup by Margarita Garcia Robayo tr Charlotte Coombe

From internationally acclaimed author Margarita García Robayo comes Fish Soup, a unique collection comprising two novellas plus the book of short stories Worse Things (winner of the prestigious Casa de las Américas Prize).

Set on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, Waiting for a Hurricane follows a girl obsessed with escaping both her life and her country. Emotionally detached from her family, and disillusioned with what the future holds if she remains, she takes ever more drastic steps in order to achieve her goal, seemingly oblivious to the damage she is causing both to herself and to those around her.

The tales of Worse Things provide snapshots of lives in turmoil, frayed relationships, dreams of escape, family taboos, and rejection both of and by society. Skilfully painting just enough detail, García Robayo explores these themes and invites the reader to unravel the true significance of the events depicted.

The previously unpublished Sexual Education examines the attempts of a student to tally the strict doctrine of abstinence taught at her school with the very different moral norms that prevail in her social circles. Semi-autobiographical, the frank depiction of these opposing pressures makes it impossible to remain a dispassionate observer.

Throughout the collection, García Robayo’s signature style blends cynicism and beauty with an undercurrent of dark humour. The prose is at once blunt and poetic as she delves into the lives of her characters, who simultaneously evoke sympathy and revulsion, challenging the reader’s loyalties as they immerse themselves in the unparalleled universe that is Fish Soup.

What I Thought:

Charco Press is a really exciting new UK publisher, specialising in translations of contemporary Latin American literature, and I was interested to read Fish Soup, their sixth publication.

Margarita Garcia Robayo had not been published in English before this release (translated by Charlotte Coombe), but has several titles in Spanish which, I’m sure, are ripe for translation going forward.

I find translations fascinating – my own disappointing lack of languages mean that there is a whole world of books out there that I have no access to (it’s enough to have me clutching my pearls!) – so translators, and publishers willing to share translated fiction get a gold star from me.

This volume is a bind up of two novellas and a collection of short stories and, in honesty I preferred the novellas if only because their slightly longer format allowed the story to become more complete. This certainly says more about my tastes than the author’s writing ability as this seems to be something I struggle with in short fiction.

The first novella, Waiting for a Hurricane was fascinating, as it depicts a girl desperate to run away from her boring life but who, at the end of it all still finds herself trapped. It is quite a dark story, and completely unsentimental with the main character being interesting but totally unsympathetic.

In the short stories, this theme of escape occurs again, alongside many and varied aspects of the human condition – it proves very firmly that however different the cultures of your own and other countries are, some themes are truly universal.

I would definitely like to read more from Margarita Garcia Robayo and, indeed from Charco Press. A lot of my translated fiction is still based within Europe, so to receive something giving a completely different perspective is refreshing and something I would like to see more of.

Fish Soup is published by Charco Press and you can find out more about the publisher and Margarita Garcia Robayo on their website.

Please note: I was sent a copy of this book for review. All opinions are, as ever, my own.

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