‘Cantoras’: Featured Fiction from Carolina De Robertis

September 3, 2019 | 1 book mentioned 4 min read

In our latest edition of featured fiction—curated by our own Carolyn Quimby—we present an excerpt from Carolina De Robertis’s new novel, Cantoras, out today from Knopf.

In it’s starred review, Kirkus raved: “Rich and luscious, De Robertis’ writing feels like a living thing, lapping over the reader like the ocean. Carefully crafted and expertly observed, each sentence is an elegant gift…A stunning novel about queer love, womanhood, and personal and political revolution.”

And here’s what our own Kaulie Lewis had to say about the book in the Second Half Preview:

In 1977 Uruguay, a military dictatorship crushes dissent and punishes homosexuality, but five queer women manage to find each other and a village on the beach where they’re safe and free, if only for a week at a time. The five call themselves cantoras, women who sing, and for the next three decades their friendships, beach-side refuge, and cantoras identities help the women find the strength to live openly and defiantly, to revolutionary effect.

1

Escape

The first time—which would become legend among them—they entered in darkness. Night enfolded the sand dunes. Stars clamored around a meager slice of moon.

They would find nothing in Cabo Polonio, the cart driver said: no electricity, and no running water. The cart driver lived in a nearby village but made that trip twice a week to supply the little grocery store that served the lighthouse keeper and a few scattered fishermen. There was no road in; you had to know your way. It was lonely out there, he remarked, glancing at them sideways, smiling to bare his remaining teeth, hinting, though he stopped short of asking any questions about what they were doing, why they were traveling to this of all places, just the five of them, without a man, and it was just as well, as they wouldn’t have had a decent answer. The trees gradually receded, but clumps of brush still reared their tousled heads from the smooth slopes as if just being born. The horse-drawn carriage moved slowly, methodically, creaking with the weight of them, hoofs muffled in the loose sand. They were stunned by the sand dunes, the vast life of them. Each traveler became lost in her own thoughts. Their five-hour bus ride down the highway already seemed a distant memory, dislodged from this place, like a dream from which they’d now awakened. The dunes rippled out around them, a spare landscape, the landscape of another planet, as if in leaving Montevideo they’d also managed to leave Earth, like that rocket that some years ago had taken men to the moon, only they were not men, and this was not the moon, it was something else, they were something else, uncharted by astronomers. The lighthouse rose before them, with its slowly circling light. They approached the cape along a beach, the ocean to their right, shimmering in the dark, in constant conversation with the sand. The cart passed a few small, box-like huts, fishermen’s huts, black against the black sky. They descended from the cart, paid the driver, and carried their packs stuffed with food and clothes and blankets as they wandered around, staring into the night. The ocean surrounded them on three sides of this cape, this almost-island, a thumb extending off the hand of the known world. At last they found the right place, or the closest thing to it, an abandoned house that could act as windbreak for their camp. It was half-built, with walls only partially constructed and no roof. Four unfinished walls and open sky. Inside, there was plenty of space for them; it would have been an ample house if it hadn’t been left to be eaten by the elements. After they set up their things, they went outside and built a fire. A breeze rose. It cooled their skin as whisky warmed it, flask moving from hand to hand. Cheese sandwiches and salami for dinner around the campfire. The thrill of lighting the wood, keeping it burning. Laughter spiked their conversation, and when it lulled, the silence had a glow to it, crackled by flames. They were happy. They were not used to being happy. The strange feeling kept them up too late together, giddy with victory and amazement. They had done it. They were out. They had shed the city like a hazardous garment and come to the edge of the world.

Finally they drifted to their blanket piles and slept to the gentle pulse of waves.

But deep in the night, Paz startled awake. The sky glittered. The moon was low, about to set. The ocean filled her ears and she took it as an invitation, impossible to resist. She slid out of her covers and walked down over the rocks, toward the shore. The ocean roared like a hunger, reaching for her feet.

She was the youngest in the group, fifteen years old. She’d lived under the dictatorship since she was eleven. She hadn’t known that air could taste like this, so wide, so open. Her body a welcome. Skin awake. The world was more than she had known, even if only for this instant, even if only in this place. She let her lips part and the breeze glided into her mouth, fresh on her tongue, full of stars. How did so much brightness fit in the night sky? How could so much ocean fit inside her? Who was she in this place? Standing on that shore, staring out at the Atlantic, with those women who were not like other women sleeping a few meters away, she felt a sensation so foreign that she almost collapsed under its spell. She felt free.

Excerpted from Cantoras. Copyright © 2019 by Carolina De Robertis. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission from the publisher.

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