Oldladyvoice by Elisa Victoria

Translated by Charlotte Whittle

Review by Anna Hollingsworth

When I pick up a book with a child narrator, it’s always with trepidation. I won’t name any culprits, but I’ve learned to fear several things: Will they be made to speak in baby language? Will they be cast as some kind of a semi-zombie not quite capable of thought? Or just as adults in size XXS? Elisa Victoria’s Oldladyvoice, however, is like being thrown into cold water — in the best possible way.

Nine-year-old Marina’s life is marked by uncertainty. Her mother is seriously ill with an unnamed illness, and Marina is sent to spend the summer with her grandmother. She is haunted by the prospect of her mother dying and being sent off to a boarding school with nuns at the end of the summer months. That wouldn’t suit Marina; she’s obsessed with violence, sex, and bodily functions. “The Devil is sort of a friend of mine in theory, but once I leave the house it isn’t so easy,” she says.

But even in the shade of illness there are other, often more pressing, concerns. There’s her mother’s boyfriend Domingo and his collection of naughty comics she needs to get her hands on, making friends with suitably dirty-minded people, watching Baywatch with her grandmother, being kissed, developing breasts, and fascists.

Nothing much happens in the sweltering days of summer, but that is the joy of the novel. Marina is a sharp observer of the dividing lines between adults and children: “We kids are more or less aware that grown-ups bust their asses for us, and we milk our innocent appearance while we can. What else are we going to do? Childhood is a fierce struggle to get out of being a potential victim as soon as possible.”

The world becomes a more miraculous place viewed through her eyes. When she moves into a new apartment, the landscape behind it presents endless opportunities to explore — but not in a sugar-coated Blytonesque way: “I want to go see if there are any used condoms on the ground. I’m convinced people must be fucking over there at night. I wonder where. I think from now on I’d rather spend weekends here.” Even the realization that James Brown is not, in fact, a tall blonde sends shockwaves through her world: “And Diana Ross, is she black or not?” Marina is led to ask. “Because I’ve seen her but I still have my doubts.”

Victoria’s writing is endlessly quotable in its sharpness and gentle humour. She can jump from thoughts about death to a description of going to the toilet without making it seem crass. The allure of it all is perhaps best captured by a scene where Marina has just done well at an interview with the nuns at her potential future boarding school, playing a meek Catholic: “Back home, they’re proud of me for being admitted to the College of the Most Holy Trinity. While my real mother, the one without a capital M, takes a siesta, Domingo and I celebrate the triumph of my charms with a boxing session.”

It’s clichéd and a bit literary agent-y to say how much you enjoy finding fresh voices in literature, but Marina’s — or Elisa Victoria’s — is certainly one. Witty, sharp, unashamed, I will gladly have Oldladyvoice in my head for a while yet.

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Anna is a journalist and linguist

Elisa Victoria, Oldladyvoice (And Other Stories, 2021). 978-1913505103, 256 pp., paperback original.

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