Empty Houses, by Brenda Navarro, translated by Sophie Hughes
“The men held forth, listening to the sound of their own voices while we women looked on confused but unfazed, because that is what we women must do: be empty houses ready to accommodate life or death, but, when it comes down to it, empty.”
As soon as I saw the description for this book, I knew I had to read it. Written by Brenda Navarro and recently translated by Sophie Hughes, two unnamed women living in Mexico tell the story of Daniel/Leonel. One is Daniel’s mother, the other abducts him and names him Leonel. The result is that both women wind up questioning whether and why they ever wanted to be mothers in the first place. This novel covers it all — maternal love, abusive romances, damaged mother/daughter relationships, class dynamics, and immigration. In just 200 pages we see the damage mothers can do to unwanted children, as well as the painful repercussions of wanting a child and not having one. Both women are so consumed with their son, with finding or keeping their romantic partners, and with surviving, that they could be any woman in the world. I honestly did not notice they were unnamed until it came time to write this review.
As my PhD research is focused on the problem of non-maternal women feeling compelled or even forced into motherhood by cultural expectation, this novel does exactly what I think is necessary: it is part of a growing body of literature that gives these women a place. But critically, it also gives a place to women who desire but can’t have children, and who question their dedication and worthiness. In short, they are *real* — not the perfect mothers we often see portrayed, who set an unrealistic standard for women everywhere. By normalizing the complicated nature of motherhood and the decision of whether to have children, literature can create a space for people to choose what is best for them.
Just one example of this all-too-uncommon practice in literature: “I’d never wanted to be a mother. To be a mother is the worst possible impulse a woman can have.” We are left to wonder if this feeling is the result of Daniel’s abduction, or a feeling this mother has always possessed, but is only now expressing.
This novel was first published in Spanish in 2018, and was recently translated by Daunt Books to English. To be honest, I found the British slang a bit strange at times, since it’s clearly not a British story (it’s set in Mexico City) and I imagined it in my American English. It was beautiful nonetheless, and I imagine this issue is exclusive to me since British slang is “British” to me, but not to British people 😉
The two narrators are honest in the extreme, and the novel moves back and forth in time, immersing the reader in her consciousness. At times this was confusing, and it took me a few sentences to figure out where I was in the timeline. The deep dive into consciousness also means that the details are often extremely graphic, and the narrators painfully honest. This novel is raw and real. Three stars.