Everything about "Perla," by Uruguayan-American author Carolina De Robertis, is devastating: the reality of 22-year-old Perla's birth, the crimes Perla's beloved father and country have committed, and, most of all, De Robertis' writing, which from beginning to end hypnotizes with poetic, crushing beauty.
"There is no place to stop this story, which, in being voiced, has taken a life of its own, as stories inevitably do," says Perla, who narrates half the story and, through flashbacks, tells not just about her life as the only child of an emotionally distant Argentine naval officer and Barbie doll mother, but the recent life of her country, which is recovering from a brutal civil war. The other half focuses on the drenched, ghost-like, naked man who appears in Perla's living room while her parents are away, smelling like "fish and copper and rotting apples" and, to Perla, feeling all too familiar.
His presence forces Perla to turn away from "the reality you want to inhabit ... the reality you can stand" and face the truths about both her origins and war abuses committed by her father, "the man with the pressed uniform ... [who sang] lullabies in the dark."
De Robertis, whose prize-winning first novel, "The Invisible Mountain," was translated into 15 languages, said one of the things she wanted "Perla" to do was educate people about the desaparecidos, or "the Disappeared" -- as many as 30,000 Argentineans who between 1976 and 1983 were kidnapped and tortured by the government, many of them thrown naked and alive from airplanes into the Atlantic Ocean or Río de la Plata between Argentina and Uruguay.
A rape counselor early in her career, De Robertis also wanted to show that those who commit atrocities are still human beings who shouldn't be defined solely by their crimes.
"One of things I heard from clients was their amazement that the people who had sexually assaulted them were people whose good sides they had seen," De Robertis said in a video about "the Disappeared" created by British journalist Carina Wint and the Norwegian Foreign Ministry. "If we are to truly move beyond violence as a society, we need to have some room to be able to acknowledge the full humanity of perpetrators of terrible crimes, without excusing those crimes."
True facts about Argentina's "Dirty War" are scattered throughout "Perla." Both the story and prose flow like a glistening Río de la Plata, although it is no quick read. Dense with images and metaphors, sentences often need to be re-read and digested before moving on.
Interactions between Perla and the drowned man also sometimes teeter on the unbelievable, leaving the reader as unsure as Perla as to whether he's really there. In the end, however, it doesn't matter. "Perla" is a gripping journey that's as heart-wrenching as it is healing; a reminder that the Disappeared must not be forgotten.
Cindy Wolfe Boynton is a Connecticut-based freelance writer and writing instructor.