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Book Review

'The Sad Passions' paints haunting tale of loss and art

Veronica Gonzalez Peña follows the lives of a middle-class Mexican family that has been shaped by absence, loss, sickness and dead dreams.

May 24, 2013|By Margaret Wappler, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Author Veronica GonzaIez Peña and the cover of her book, "The Sad Passions."
Author Veronica GonzaIez Peña and the cover of her book, "The… (George Porcari / Semiotexte;…)

Spectral girls and shadow fathers haunt the center and fringes of Veronica Gonzalez Peña's second novel, "The Sad Passions," but this isn't magical realism. These aren't spirits who visit in the middle of the night. These phantom girls and men are living, flesh-and-blood characters shaped by absence and loss, sickness and dead dreams. "The Sad Passions" knows that half-erased people are more devastating than any ghost.

Peña's gorgeously dark chronicle revolves around a middle-class Mexican family that seems pretty ordinary, except for Claudia, a young woman who rages with unchecked manic depression. After eloping in 1960 with her drifter-husband, Miguel, at age 16, she receives electroshock therapy while seven months pregnant with her first child. Claudia either ransacks life for every sensation — sleeping with random men, hitchhiking across the U.S., terrorizing her sister Sofia — or she's a husk of a creature, hallucinating and paranoid. She ends up back in her mother, Cecilia's, care after multiple short-lived attempts to set up house with Miguel.

In quick succession, Claudia gives birth to three daughters, Rocio, Julia and Marta, and then a bit later, Sandra, but she is unfit to truly nurture any of them. All of these women bear the weight of Claudia's illness throughout the novel, and in chapters told in first person from each one's point of view as adults reflecting back, we get to see how that pressure affects the sisters.

Rocio is a fragile beauty who escapes into relationships with men; Marta jealously polices her siblings for weakness and cruelly pounces on them; sensitive Sandra is rescued from her potent imagination by her far more stable aunt Sofia; and Julia is sent away at age 6 to live with her uncle in Los Angeles. Claudia, in her worst bouts of insanity, stalks the hallways of Cecilia's home looking for her lost daughter.

From some angles Julia might look like the lucky one, raised away from her mother's madness. But her life with her passive uncle and controlling aunt is hardly an escape, as we discover from her numbed recollections. Many years later she's sifting through the fallout while hiding in Long Island, her relationship with her famous artist boyfriend shattered behind her.

Peña, the founder of rockypoint Press (a series of artist-writer collaborations that have manifested in L.A.-based readings, publications and a yet-to-be-released film), makes precise use of her deep knowledge of the art world by incorporating visuals in "The Sad Passions." She threads images by real historical artists throughout Julia's chapters in a manner similar to W.G. Sebald, as fixed points in a swirling, internal text.

Julia, an art historian and ostensibly the author of this book, ruminates on the way the images — such as photographs of Hans Bellmer's mangled girl puppets, created in fascist Germany — resonate with her own shadowy existence. Of Francesca Woodman's blurry photographs of women (one of which graces the book's cover), Julia writes that they "say something to me about absence, about the spirit mark I left etched on my sisters when I was gone."

For all of the effects of erasure and absence on "The Sad Passions," the narration is incredibly present, crawling on the page in spidery, sprawling observations, setting up pools and lairs that lure a reader in. Peña sometimes retraces the same stories from too many points of view, but it's easy to forgive such conscientious exploration. The author is restoring those spirit marks that have been obscured by loss, lighting them for everyone to see.

Wappler is a writer in Los Angeles.

The Sad Passions

Veronica Gonzalez Peña
Semiotext(e): 344 pp., $17.95

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