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Book review: The Body Hunter, By Najat El Hachmi, trans. Peter Bush

A brave Catalan writer fashions a heroine who really breaks the rules

Najat El Hachmi is not to be typecast. Her excellent first novel The Last Patriarch dealt with immigration from Morocco to Catalonia and the struggle of a daughter of a tyrannical, yet loved, father to become a free woman. In her second, the curious and original The Body Hunter, she breaks radically with this subject-matter. She sets out to explore sex and loneliness in a working-class setting.

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The novel is ably translated by Peter Bush from Catalan, one of Spain's several languages and one with a rich literary tradition on which El Hachmi draws. She is reminiscent of Mercè Rodoreda in her detailing of everyday objects to reveal the workings of her main character's mind and her use of a direct, colloquial voice.

In the first half, Isabel narrates her numerous sex relationships. Her lovers, of widely varying backgrounds (Isabel is seeking all that's different), are an amalgam of male sexual egotism and inadequacy. She finds satisfactions, but no fulfilment.

Isabel works the night shift in a pizza factory and is narrating her experiences to a man she comes to trust (he is not interested in sleeping with her), a writer who employs her as a cleaner. Whereas in the first half Isabel explores her sexuality (her real wants and not what is expected of her); in the second, prompted by her writer-listener, she starts to analyse herself and the reasons for her lonely quest for love.

This second half is slow at times, as there is little story and a lot of reflection. El Hachmi, with seriousness and humour, explores Isabel's life, with men and at work. Though apparently this is a book about sex, it is as much about cleaning, a "kind of therapy" for Isabel and, she confides to the writer, a more intimate experience than sex. You really get to know someone when you lie down and clean under the furniture.

To some degree the novel is a conventional morality tale: promiscuous sex does not bring happiness. What makes it special is its extraordinary physical detail, both in the sex (not at all titillating) and cleaning (stimulating) and in the description of clothes, smells and factory work. El Hachmi is not just bold in her themes, but intelligently and patiently teases out their contradictions. She is a fine writer.