Dictatorships cannot abide desire. That visceral human gravitation, the movement of the marrow in the direction of want, is the antithesis of totalitarianism. To express it—and especially to express it in a manner the gatekeepers of mainstream society deem aberrant—is to express a dangerous, powerful kind of freedom.
Freedom—its presence and absence, the longing for it—colors every page of Carolina De Robertis’ masterful, passionate and at times painful new novel. Cantoras tells the story of five women who must navigate a society in the grips of overwhelming oppression, at a time when being a woman who loves other women carries a sentence of at best ostracization and at worst obliteration.
Cantoras begins in late-1970s Uruguay, a country under the control of a merciless military government. Seeking refuge from the oppressive atmosphere of the capital, five women travel to an isolated coastal village called Cabo Polonio. It soon becomes a haven where the women can live as they wish, to be lovers, friends, confidants—to be free. So liberating is this place that the women decide to pool their money and buy a small home there.
From that first visit to Cabo Polonio, De Robertis unfurls the stories of each of the women’s lives—their hopes, their secret pasts, the suffering they’ve been made to endure by a society in which living openly is more often than not a dangerous pipe dream. The novel covers some 35 years, frequently changing focus from one character to another and yet at all times retaining a powerful sense of intimacy. Each of De Robertis’ central characters is of incredible emotional depth.
Cantoras is at its most powerful when dissecting consequences of desire. Several of the central characters are subjected to horrific violence at the hands of the military dictatorship, but they are also sometimes subjected to violence at the hands of their relatives, people who cannot accept them as they are, who want desperately to “fix” them. In this atmosphere of repression, Romina, one of the five women, thinks, “the path into the forbidden was in fact wide open right in front of you . . . stepping onto it could be a kind of rightness, a vitality more powerful than fear.”
The bond the five women form—the way they orbit, attract and repel, take solace and find strength in one another—is the most moving part of Cantoras. By the end of the novel, there is a sense that the reader has done more than simply peer in on the lives of strangers, that instead they have experienced something organic and deeply human—a dangerous, powerful kind of freedom.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Carolina De Robertis on Cantoras.