Happy Families, By Carlos Fuentes trs Edith Grossman

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The Independent Culture

The title of Carlos Fuentes' book is, it turns out, heavily ironic: these are stories of families riven by discord and distrust, or destroyed by tragedy. In "Mater Dolorosa", a woman corresponds with a convict, the murderer of her only daughter: her letters try to make him see the enormity of the crime, while his try to make her see why he did it. "Conjugal Ties" (Parts 1 and 2) tell of a complicated web of adultery involving three men and two women, full of bitterness, jealousy, dominance and physical abuse.

The stories tend to centre on wealthy, bourgeois characters who work as bankers or lawyers or agronomists and drink margaritas in piano bars, but they're spliced with free-verse poems about the Mexican underclass with titles such as "Chorus of the Suffering Children", and lines such as "I don't want to be here mamacita/ Toss me in the garbage instead mother/ I don't want to be born and grow dumber each day." A picture emerges of a divided society where dishonesty is endemic and violence seethes just below the surface. It sounds gruelling, but Fuentes' lyrical writing transforms it into art.

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