Book Review: Before by Carmen Boullosa or growing up is scary

clac clac clac. Steps approaching. That feeling that someone – or something – is watching you from the darkness, hidden from view. But you can feel it, its presence slowly approaching, towering over you, overpowering. Fear. That copper taste in your mouth, and the world pauses. Fear. But is it your instinct for survival kicking in or are you a child frightened by shadows?

The world can be a scary place when you don’t have enough words to define it, understand it and thus tame it. Words encapsulate fear and distill it. Words capture fear and immobilize it. But children lack words; they gather them slowly, like pebbles. Fear recedes slowly, and growing up can be even scarier. When you are finally making sense of the world, puberty places everything on its head. More so for women, where puberty not only comes with painful and scary changes, but often with a loss of freedom. A restrictive set of rules that make no sense and are not applied consistently. What if it also came with an announced death?

Carmen Boullosa considers Before her debut novel, even if she had written a very violent story before which she felt was too rough to be a novel, too amateur to count. So Before is really the beginning. It was the beginning of a successful literary career. She had become known in poetry circles and small-time theater for her plays and poems. But there was a story that would not let her go. A story about herself, and her mother and a long-lost childhood. A mother herself, both to her babies and her partner’s little son, trying to make ends meet running a small theater, and writing poetry and dealing with what it means to mother when you lost your mother, with her fears and that story. That story that wanted so much to get out. That story that poked her every time her partner’s son ran to her bed chased by his fear. So she wrote it down, possibly to get rid of it. To let it rest. She didn’t think she would publish it. But she needed money and Octavio Paz was interested. Who said “no” to the only Mexican author to ever win the Nobel Prize for Literature?

Antes was born in 1989, and Before would not get to meet English-speaking readers until 2016. In Before, an unnamed girl recounts her life chased by shadows and eerie noises. Nightmares, emotional recollections and magical realism are all mingled together to create a story about coming-of-age as a woman in Mexico in the mid 1950s.

A ghost-story it is, a very Mexican and Catholic ghost story at that, but very different from its predecessors, Carlos Fuentes’ Aura and Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo. Being that the narrator is little girl, the narration is fractured; there is a lot of repetition and at the same time, the reader does not get the whole picture. The reader is forced to try to understand whatever this young girl is trying to convey with how limiting and restricting her fear is to her ability to paint a clear picture. Fear and how her imagination tries to make sense of what she perceives, draw shadows here and there with only a partial and confused picture surfacing.

Before is a woman-centered story about the nature of womanhood and the restrictions that Catholicism and patriarchal society place on women. It is story about how society punishes women who dare to dream otherwise, like Esther. In Before death is not only literal, but a signifier of a great change and how we make sense of that in this life. It is about women’s guilt over things they cannot control. About handling grief, and change and guilt and societal pressure. It is about erasing yourself not to feel, not to be demanded and restricted, not to dream to rise about all of it, and fail.

Comparing it to its predecessors, it is a more nuanced, more complex and more critical ghost story about the world that young women inhabit. It was true in Mexico of the 1950s, and it still very true today in some form or another. A masterpiece of feminist fiction.

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