Spoilers, but who cares?
I want to understand you, Edgar Cantero, but I just don’t know what to think.
There are so many things I want to praise in this book: things that made the book super readable, make it a page-turner. There are interesting things and loose ends a world that is asking to be explored deeper.
And I can’t talk about any of them, because the characters that experience this story have the most uncomfortable relationship I have ever read in a book, and I cannot get over it.
The main character, who goes by A (just A), is a 23 year old Brit and inherits some big house in America. His partner/guardian/protector/friend/love? is Niamh (pron. Neeve), who’s a mute Irish punk rock looking girl who, for some reason I cannot imagine, has to be 16 years old.
I honestly do not know what I’m supposed to think about A and Niamh. I really don’t. It feels like all of the characters are trying to convince me that them being together is okay, and not okay at the same time. No matter how much I tried to ignore it, Cantero had to remind me at least once every section about how “fourteenish, fifteenish, sixteenish,” Niamh looks. He does not do the same for A, because it seems unnecessary to point out how “twenty-threeish” he is compared to her. But I kept reading, because although this was an inescapable fact, A seemed to resist the notion in several instances, notably:
– When he says he does not want to be “Nabokov” when describing her attractiveness (author of Lolita)
– When he turns down her advances or changes the subject
– When he is describing a memory about him and his friend in the locker room, where he used a ‘he’ pronoun to describe said friend, implying that he might not be straight
These small moments kept me reading, hoping that this relationship would turn out in some different way I did not expect, some way that would let me focus on the mystery. Perhaps his repressed homosexuality was being compensated for somehow, or that they were actually relatives in some way and were playing at some sort of con? Literally anything other than the truth of the matter. For all of the moments that gave me comfort, there were two that made me squirm, especially:
– When A notes how hard it will be to not fall in love with her near the beginning
– How the psychologist “demurs” at the mention of how they sleep in the same bed, rather than saying how unhealthy such a relationship would be
– How when A references Niamh, its often through the lens of sex, like talking about orgies in that same bed, or commenting on how attractive he finds her in the first place
– How Aunt Liza, their respective guardian and overseer, seems perfectly fine with this relationship, despite one party being a minor
– (trigger warning) How there is a near-rape scene during the climax involving her, and everyone takes time to comment on how messed up it us, while also not doing anything about it
– How Niamh is dressing and undressing with A always in the same space, where he appears to not notice, but probably does
– How the state of Niamh’s dress, or lack thereof, is always mentioned to ensure the audience knows what she’s wearing and what her hairstyle is in every sequence, while A’s outfit is only described once in the entirety of the book (priorities?)
For those who may not know, the book is translated from Spanish; Edgar Cantero lives in Spain where the age of consent is 16 (I’m sure I’m now on some watch list for having to look that up on the internet so thanks for that). However neither A nor Niamh come from Spain, nor does the book take place there. They would both come from places where consent would be 18, but I feel like the book is trying very hard to convince me of at least one of two things:
1. There is a cultural divide at play, and one country’s values about age and consent do not equate to another, or,
2. That A and Niamh are aware of how unhealthy it looks from the outside, but she is seeming to consent (despite being made mute somehow and metaphorically having no voice), and he is also aware of his actions. This self-awareness absolves them, and so the audience should feel comfortable in their affair.
But I’m not okay with it, and I don’t think there is a divide. A simple tweak would have made the whole thing all right; A could have been younger, or Niamh could have been older. It would have been the simplest thing, and then the fact that they were interested in each other would have made sense from the age group of the characters. They would have been going through puberty and exploring sexuality, or they were adults and both consented to a relationship without breaking the laws of any country, and it seemed possible. Niamh felt much older for her age, being that she was made to be the caretaker, and A always felt younger since he was being taken care of. It seemed so easy to forget their age gap, until the book felt the need to remind me every change of POV. All of the outside observers of this relationship know it’s wrong, as well as A, but because they’re willing to have a relationship anyway, it makes it feel like it’s some sort of forbidden love, and we should be rooting for them to overcome this barrier between them that, as the book would like us to believe, is not really that big a deal right? Sure, it’s “naughty” or “dirty”, but she’s into it, so it must be okay, correct?
I don’t know what Edgar Cantero wants me to think about these two, but I do not agree with it. I was looking forward to Meddling Kids, this gothic style could have been so wonderful, but my whole reading experience was dominated trying to find a way to make this relationship feel comfortable. It’s one thing that age of consent is 16 in Spain, but when the book is so creepy about Niamh her being mute and what people think about her and what they want to do to her, I feel like the book is trying to convey something more.