Book Review: Abyss by Pilar Quintana

Abyss – Pilar Quintana (World Editions, 2023)

I received an Advance Readers’ Copy of this book thanks to the publisher and NetGalley. All opinions are my own. Publication date is February 17, 2023.

translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman.

Set in Cali, Colombia, Abyss is a story about eight-year-old Claudia and particularly her relationship with her mother. We see the world through Claudia’s eyes as she struggles to understand and decipher what is happening around her. Her family is well off, her father the owner of a supermarket where he works long hours. Her mother grew up wealthy but became impoverished after her father’s death. She married her much older husband when she was still a young woman and now spends her days reading magazines and caring for the copious amount of plants that fill their apartment.

Claudia’s life seems normal enough but things change when her father’s sister marries a younger man. Claudia’s mother and this new uncle seem drawn together and though Claudia describes their interactions with innocence, the reader can see what is happening behind the scenes. From there, Claudia’s mother (also named Claudia) falls into a deep depression, rarely rising from her bed and increasingly pushing Claudia away.

Tension grows when the family takes a holiday to a house high in the mountains. The house belongs to a family that Claudia (the elder) knew as a young girl. Years ago the mother of this family disappeared while driving up the mountain one night. Claudia (the younger) becomes obsessed with this family and increasingly convinced that this disappeared mother is haunting the house. Would a mother every intentionally leave her family? wonders young Claudia and it is clear that she is attempting to understand and reconcile her own mother’s depression.

The book has a very constrained feel, told as it is through the eyes of such a young child. Claudia is smart and observant but too young to fully understand the things she is witnessing. At the same time, the author never talks down to her characters. Claudia (the younger) is a child but she isn’t infantilized. There’s no sense of the author winking at the reader over Claudia’s head. We feel sadness for Claudia as we understand what is happening around her and watch her struggle to process her own experience. The fears of childhood and the uncertainty of adult behaviour are captured extremely well.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: Abyss by Pilar Quintana”

  1. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book told from a child’s POV that I felt fully immersed in. Yes, there are precocious children, and yes some rather baby-like, but it seems like no matter what the author does, we’re not convinced. For example, my niece learned that a credit card can “decline a transaction.” Later, when my mom asked where they parked (the 6-year-old niece was supposed to remember to practice memory stuff), my niece said she forgot because “her brain declined that transaction.” Now, doesn’t that sound totally made up??

    1. Haha, that does sound made up! A lot of what little kids say and do probably would if you tried to present it all as fiction. I find that kids in fiction and movies often come across as overly precocious. That wasn’t such a huge problem here but I did struggle to understand how old the character was supposed to be. Her speaking seemed closer to 12 but her actions seemed a lot younger, more like 5, so that was never clear.

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