Before writing her first novel, Eva Baltasar published ten books of poetry. That background is evident in the attention she pays to her word choices and the sharpness of her observations throughout Permafrost. Lines like, “On the outside, I’m softer than I might seem, as good as a pastry, a warm thing of varnished wax as alluring as an opening line” demonstrate Baltasar’s masterful lyricism. Her years as a poet make for an entertaining voice, with semantic surprises coming in nearly every sentence.
A Lyrical Novel
Baltasar is following in the footsteps of the late, great Sylvia Plath, who also made a name in poetry before publishing her first novel The Bell Jar. Baltasar even sneaks a direct reference to the other book’s title when she writes, “She’s an exceptional girl with no choice but to grow under the dark dome of a bell jar.” Like Plath’s novel, Permafrost also deals with mental illness and places its central metaphor—depression as a “permafrost” in the narrator’s mind—into its title. The narrator of each novel struggles with suicidal thoughts, but Permafrost has less direction and more humor.
The sense of directionlessness in Permafrost communicates the narrator’s sense of disconnection from her reality. It can be confusing at times, but that disorientation mirrors the narrator’s foggy mental state. The fact that the book is short—144 pages—makes it all more forgivable. A 600-page book without direction would be torture. At this shorter length, Permafrost gets away with not having a solid plot, instead taking us on a journey through the narrator’s mind.
The humor makes those 144 pages breeze by. Jokes like, “She’d committed the eminently literary act of turning her life into a big fat lie,” serve as a rubber conductor to the third rail of Baltasar’s heavy material. In turn, the discomfort of reading the narrator’s suicidal ideation makes those jokes even funnier. They come as much-needed relief. Baltasar manages all that without ever making light of the suffering that comes from mental illness.
This edition of Permafrost, which is the first of Baltasar’s work translated from the original Catalan into English, ends with a fascinating essay by translator Julia Sanchez on her process. She writes that Baltasar had one request: “that the word in question be replaced with one that was similarly stressed or unstressed, as the case may be. What mattered was how each word affected the music of the sentence, what this music conveyed, and how the music delivered up the image to the reader.” That musicality certainly comes through in the translation.
Permafrost is the first in a “triptych” of novels about three different women. If the other two are half as good as Permafrost, that is exciting news. Baltasar’s English debut is well worth reading.
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|Pub Date: April 6, 2021||Page Count: 128pp||Age Range: 16 & Over|
|ISBN: 978-1-9115-0875-5||Publisher: And Other Stories||List Price: $15.95|