House of Beauty by Melba Escobar

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Translated by Elizabeth Bryer

Reviewed by Basil Ransome Davies

House of Beauty by Melba Escobar

Each time I walk into town from my house I pass at least one nail/beauty salon/spa/bar/studio (the titles variously inflect the appeal). Spread around the town are up to a dozen. Such places are not for elderly geezers, but I do occasionally reflect on the roaring expansion of an industry based on artifice, glamour, ‘looks’, one which has attracted a reputation for exploiting vulnerable female labour. Check out Amazon’s list of books on self-enhancement.  You can even buy the Beauty Salon Colouring Book: Hair, Makeup and Nails. ‘For all ages’, needless to say. The tv channel QVC BEAUTY unsubtly highlights the notion of beauty treatments as addictive with the slogan ‘Tune in for your daily beauty fix’. It’s a lavish international economy. Even the global male grooming market has an annual value estimated (by Statista) at over twenty billion dollars.

House of Beauty, a Colombian début novel from Melba Escobar translated by Elizabeth Bryer, tells in fiction what might be called the ‘inside story’ of the business, in which customers are enticed to buy expensive treatments while employees work under harsh rules for scant wages, always tip-dependent. The framing narrative is delivered – controlled – by a psychotherapist, who kicks off with an eloquent outburst:

I hate artificial nails in outlandish colours, fake blonde hair, cool silk blouses and diamond earrings at four in the afternoon. Never before have so many women looked like transvestites, or like prostitutes dressing up as good wives.

That’s only the launch paragraph of a fierce personal shit-list trashing, among other sources of discontent, ‘little drug-dealers’ hussies bottled into plastic bodies’, the men ‘reduced to primitive versions of themselves’, the corrupt ‘Mafiosio world … of thugs, politicians and, businessmen’ that is Colombia’s effective power structure, widespread snobbery and servility and finally, like a good, self-aware shrink, her own indulgence in so much illiberal hate. This is the voice of Claire Delvard, a successful, sophisticated woman in late middle age, the daughter of a French immigrant, herself an emigré returned after years spent in France, worldly in a sympathetic way. When she is through cursing the evils of society she announces with apparent candour ‘Mine’s an ordinary story.’

Well, it is and it isn’t. For one thing, it interweaves the story of a wealthy, privileged woman with the fate of her inverse in the social scale – Karen Mendez, a young mixed-race single mother who in the hope of securing a better future for herself and her child, becomes ‘part of House of Beauty’, a salon in the Zona Rosa – ‘Bogotá’s premier shopping, dining and and entertainment district’, says the online promo.

There, her hopes of self-advancement and a reunion with her child are endlessly deferred. The outward embellishment of wealthy women is secured through the impoverishment of the servicing ones  – not recognised as ‘sisters’, though often privy to confessional gossip. Claire’s interest in Karen is something the head-doctor herself can’t fully explain, but their relationship, filtered through a variety of perspectives, strips away surface pretensions to disclose the ugly heart of the beauty business. Some of the narrative switches jar the engrossed attention that the fluent, conversational style invites (this is a first novel), but overall it’s an effective mode of underlining the difference in status and life-experience of the two women. More than that, the murder of a teenage client of Karen’s drives an investigatory dénouement that allows the novel to be marketed as crime fiction.

Currently so many authors of literary fiction are queueing up to write crime-branded novels – which tick almost every box there is for keen readers, and, done well, deliver thrills rather than data or uplift – that the concept of  genre is in the mixer. Drop a crime into an average tale and you’ve got not just a Unique but a Universal Selling Point. There’s a cruel and horrible killing as well as rape in House of Beauty. It doesn’t flinch from the vile particularities of women’s oppression (or the chagrin entailed by women’s long-suffering endurance of it) and the psychotic violence rooted in male misogyny. Some reviewers feel that the murder, and its follow-up, are an intrusion, an add-on to spice up a grim, arduous tale. I don’t. I would accept that the story is ‘ordinary’ in the sense of ‘typical’: that is,  representative of a first-order reality, in this case the chronic tensions and agonies of Colombia. Nineteenth-century heavy hitters such as Zola and Dickens liked to choose a specific area of social existence (subculture, occupation, region, family, etc.) and make it epitomise the larger social formation. Escobar follows this tradition. She has spoken of her wish to merge the social and the psychological, the public and the personal, in her writing, and one vital nexus is the criminal justice system, backed by state policy.

It’s easy to mock the effusions of the beauty industry, its commercial cult of attractiveness, its lotions and potions and procedures and prostheses and daft fashions. A whole business founded on what a woman should look like must be at one level absurd, but neither mockery nor a blend of professional concern, sincere goodwill and the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie (which is essentially what Claire offers) promise to change that. In Columbia the scales of justice are radically unbalanced. As Laura Wilson wrote in the Guardian, ’in a country where the legal system is underfunded and overloaded, and rich people can get away with murder, there’s little chance of justice.’ Expect a good read, but not a comfortable happy ending.

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Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.

Melba Escobar, House of Beauty (4th Estate, London, 2018). 978-008264246, 247 pp., paperback.

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