Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro

Translated by Frances Riddle

Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite 

Claudia Piñeiro is an author from Argentina who, so far, has mostly been published in English as a crime writer. As the introduction to Elena Knows points out, this may lead readers to have a certain preconception of what her work will be like. Elena Knows features an investigation of sorts, but it’s not so much about a crime as whether a crime has actually taken place. 

Our protagonist is Elena, whose daughter Rita was found hanging in the belfry of her church. Elena is convinced that this must be a case of murder, because she is sure – that is, Elena knows – her daughter couldn’t have done this to herself. It had been raining that day, and Rita wouldn’t have gone to the church in that rain. Rita couldn’t have tied that knot. 

The police won’t listen to Elena, so she resolves to do something herself. On the day chronicled in Piñeiro’s novel, Elena sets out across the city to visit Isabel, a woman whom Rita helped twenty years ago, in the hope that Isabel might be moved to reciprocate now. 

What complicates Elena’s life  – dominates it, really  – is that she has Parkinson’s. She can only lift her neck to a certain angle, is reliant on her medication to be able to function. The novel is structured around the pills Elena takes, which is appropriate because that’s how she experiences the day. We get a strong sense of how laborious daily tasks can be for her:

The trick is to lift up the right foot, just a few centimetres off the floor, move it forward through the air, just enough to get past the left foot, and when it gets as far as it can go, lower it. That’s all it is, Elena thinks. But she thinks this, and even though her brain orders the movement, her right foot doesn’t move. It does not lift up. It does not move forward through the air. It does not lower back down. It’s so simple. But it doesn’t do it.

Frances Riddle’s translation really shines in conveying Elena’s mental world. Piñeiro’s prose is not laborious to read, or static. But it is dense on the page, literally: long blocks of text, dialogue printed in italics within, rather than on separate lines. This emphasises that there are no short cuts in Elena’s life. 

Elena is convinced that, being Rita’s mother, she knows her daughter better than anyone else. She reflects on their relationship throughout the novel:

She loved and still loves her daughter even though she never said it, even though they fought and kept their distance, even though their words were like cracks of a whip, and even if she didn’t hug or kiss her daughter, she felt a mother’s love. Is she still a mother now that she doesn’t have a child?

Identity is one of the book’s key themes: what does it mean for Elena’s sense of self now that she no longer has Rita, now that she’s grown old, now that it’s such a struggle to get her body to do as she wants? Besides dealing with these questions, Elena has to face up to the fact that she didn’t know her daughter as well as she thought. 

I found Elena Knows to be a powerful book, one that ranges widely within an ostensibly rigid structure. Charco Press are always worth a look – I think this is my favourite of theirs that I’ve read. 

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David blogs at David’s Book World.

Claudia Piñeiro, Elena Knows (Charco Press, 2021). 978-1999368432, 220pp., paperback original.

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