Every now and again, a book comes along that catches the reader off-guard with its impact and memorability. Elena Knows – the third novel from the award-winning writer and activist Claudia Piñeiro – seems set to be that kind of book, for this reader at least. Even though it’s only a week or so since I read it, I strongly suspect that the issues raised by this novel (and the skill with which Piñeiro conveys them) will likely resonate with me for some time. In short, the book is a powerful exploration of various facets of control over women’s bodies. More specifically, the extent to which women are in control (or not) of their own bodies in a predominantly Catholic society; how religious dogma and doctrines exert pressure on women to relinquish that control to others, often against their will; and what happens when the body fails us due to illness and/or disability.
Central to the novel is Elena, a woman in her mid-sixties who has severe Parkinson’s Disease, a condition that places significant restrictions on her mobility, which fluctuates throughout the day.
When Elena’s daughter, Rita, is found dead, her body hanging from the bell in the church belfry, the official investigations deliver a verdict of suicide, and the case is promptly closed by the police. Elena, however, refuses to believe the authorities’ ruling based on her knowledge of Rita’s beliefs. Elena knows – or thinks she knows – that Rita would never have entered the church on a rainy day due to a deep-seated fear of lightning. The cross on the church roof would have acted as a powerful lightning conductor, making the building a precarious place to take shelter on the afternoon in question.
No one knows as much about her daughter as she does, she thinks, because she’s her mother, or was her mother. Motherhood, Elena thinks, comes with certain things, a mother knows her child, a mother knows, a mother loves… (p. 49)
Consequently, Elena is determined to conduct her own investigation into Rita’s death. The trouble is, she can only move around for a couple of hours at a time once each dose of her Parkinson’s medication kicks in. So, with no other viable options at her disposal, Elena embarks on a tortuous journey across the city of Buenos Aires in the hope of calling in a favour from an acquaintance named Isabel. While Elena hasn’t seen Isabel for twenty years, she believes the latter owes her a debt of gratitude for a past kindness – significant enough to call on Isabel to act on her behalf.
The narrative is very cleverly structured as it mirrors the times when Elena takes her tablets: morning (second pill), midday (third pill) and afternoon (fourth pill). Once each tablet takes effect, Elena can move for just an hour or two before her body stops responding, effectively immobilising her until it’s time for the next dose, and the cycle can begin again.
By holding the reader close to Elena as she makes her way across the city, Piñeiro enables us to see just how difficult it is for someone with severe Parkinson’s to complete simple actions that others take for granted e.g. walking the five blocks from her home to the train station, buying a ticket, boarding the train, timing her journey to ensure she’ll get a seat, and getting off the train at her destination – each of these tasks feels like a Herculean challenge for Elena. Moreover, the sheer difficulty of this journey creates a genuine sense of tension as her body could seize up at any point, leaving Elena in limbo until it’s time for her next pill.
As Elena marks out the journey in manageable stages, we learn more about her relationship with Rita and various events from the past. While Elena clearly loved Rita very deeply, their relationship was stormy with both parties experiencing significant anger and frustration, typically driven by the limitations imposed by Elena’s Parkinson’s. There were times when Rita felt disgusted by her mother’s condition, especially the lack of control Elena had (and still has) over certain bodily functions, such as her constant tendency to drool. In effect, Rita was fast becoming her mother’s carer as Elena’s condition worsened. The endless bureaucracy around medical insurance proved another source of frustration for Rita, highlighting the system’s dehumanising effect and lack of sensitivity to the urgency of patients’ needs.
As the narrative unfolds, we see how the teachings of the Catholic Church have contributed to the lack of control women have over their own bodies. Certain actions, such as abortion, are condemned by the Church, imposing severe restrictions on the options open to women should they become pregnant.
…we, as Christians, know that our bodies do not belong to us, that our bodies belong to God, and so we cannot go against Him […] The Church condemns suicide just as it condemns any murder, any wrongful use of the body that does not belong to us, whatever name you want to give the action, suicide, abortion, euthanasia. Parkinson’s, she says, but he ignores her. (p. 53)
Moreover, Piñeiro sets up various juxtapositions in the novel, highlighting the complexity of the moral issues at play. For instance, while Elena must relinquish control of her bodily movements to Parkinson’s (the terrible ‘whore’ illness she refers to as ‘Herself’), she is quite prepared to ask another woman for the ‘use’ of her body to act as a surrogate investigator on her behalf. There are other examples here too, most notably how some pregnant women seeking abortions are prevented from gaining access to the appropriate support due to extreme pressure from others – such as women with opposing views.
By exploring the specific demands placed on each of the two central characters – Elena and Rita – together with the demands and controls they seek to place on others, Piñeiro successfully highlights some of the injustices in this society. (The final section of the story is exceptionally powerful and compelling, delivering a cruel twist of fate that I did not anticipate beforehand. It’s a development that lends a crushing note of irony to the novel’s title, prompting us to us to question how well we know ourselves and others when faced with a terrible dilemma.)
For a novel first published in Argentina in 2007 (and subsequently translated into English in 2021), Elena Knows still feels incredibly timely, especially given recent political developments around women’s rights. It’s a powerful and urgent read full of depth and complexity – as Max commented in his 2021 reading highlights, this is an excellent example of how the investigation into a potential crime can be used as a vehicle in fiction to explore pressing societal issues. There are so many layers to unpack here, not only around agency and bodily autonomy but in other areas such as motherhood and identity. I’ll finish with a final quote that taps into some of these themes, just to give a more rounded view of the novel’s concerns.
What name does she [Elena] have now that she’s childless? Has Rita’s death erased everything she was? Her illness didn’t erase it. Being a mother, Elena knows, isn’t changed by any illness even if it keeps you from being able to put on a jacket, or freezes your feet so that you can’t move, or forces you to live with your head down, but could Rita’s death have taken not only her daughter’s body but also the word that names what she, Elena, is? (p. 49)
Elena Knows is published by Charco Press; personal copy.