A cantankerous Parkinson’s sufferer is the unlikely heroine of International Booker Prize short-listed novella Elena Knows by Claudia Pineiro. Elena is crippled by Parkinson but that doesn’t stop her from travelling across Buenos Aires to find out if her daughter Rita’s death was murder or suicide. Elena Knows is not a murder mystery, rather, it’s a story about determination, ageing, religious hypocrisy, illness and most of all, women’s bodies. I’ve rarely read a more convincing portrayal of debilitating illness which in this book becomes the very symbol of who controls women’s bodies.
Elena is 63 years old, but you wouldn’t know. Hunched over, only able to see people’s shoes when she talks to them, existing in intervals dictated by the effect of her pills, the ‘fucking whore illness’ makes her seem much older. Her determination, however, is not affected, and when the police, the priest and everyone around her dismiss her theory that someone murdered Rita, she goes to find out for herself. Elena Knows takes place over one day as Elena makes her way across Buenos Aires to seek out the woman who might hold the key to the mystery.
Women’s control over their bodies is the underlying theme of this novel. The value of a woman is defined by her ability to produce children and her identity determined by them.
Is she still a mother now that she doesn’t have a child? If it had been her who died, Rita would now have been an orphan. What name does she have now that she’s childless? Has Rita’s death erased everything she was?
Despite being subjugated by societal and religious doctrines, Elena herself seeks to control the bodies of the women around her. Perhaps that too is expected. It’s useful to know that Pineiro has been a vocal supporter of abortion rights in Argentina which only legalised abortion in 2020. In this burning defence of women and their right to control their own destiny, she quietly but effectively makes her point. A clever and original read.
Elena Knows by Claudia Pineiro is published Charco Press, 220 pages.