Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro (tr. Frances Riddle)

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.

30 thoughts on “Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro (tr. Frances Riddle)

  1. Julé Cunningham

    Elena Knows must indeed be a powerful book, the description of what a woman with so many cards stacked against her puts herself through to try and find out the truth of what happened to her daughter is pretty devastating. It’s also striking that both Elena and Rita sound as though they are complex characters who are not always easy. A fascinating review Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank, Jule. Another reader (who’d read the novel this summer) was saying this morning how the word ‘powerful’ is almost an understatement when it comes to this book because it’s so impactful, almost like a punch to the guts at one point. As you say, there are two rather complex, challenging characters here that really ring true. I couldn’t help but think of Janina from Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow as I was reading about Elena. They share a certain determination and singularity of purpose/approach, I think.

      Reply
  2. 1streading

    This is one of my favourite Charco titles. It works as a thriller but is also a very clever way of examining the issue of choice. Elena is not so much an unreliable protagonist as a deluded one, but then so many people construct their lives on lies.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I completely agree with you on how Pineiro draws on certain elements of crime fiction here, almost as a springboard or catalyst for the exploration of some pressing social issues. It’s a very compelling approach, plus the various challenges that Elena must navigate during her journey makes it feel very tense. My first Charco, would you believe, but hopefully not my last!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the descriptions of how it feels to have Parkinson’s are remarkably powerful, aren’t they? Pineiro captures these so well, she must have spent quite a lot of time researching this area. I knew a little about the on/off periods from my previous work in healthcare, but not the various limitations this can place on someone’s day-to-day life…

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great review Jacqui of what sounds a really powerful book. To get inside the experience of someone with limited mobility like that is impressive, and it seems that she captures the lack of agency women have in some societies (and how it’s getting in others). Very timely and relevant as you say.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Yes, it does feel incredibly timely, especially given recent developments in the US. Plus, abortion remains illegal in many parts of Latin America, so it’s an ongoing issue there. I can see why this one made the International Booker shortlist as it’s a very impressive book – a pressing social issue, brilliantly explored.

      Reply
  4. Liz Dexter

    This sounds very powerful and timely, and what an interesting perspective to take, inside the world of someone with a limiting disability but a lot of strength and grabbing her own agency.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think the fact that Elena experiences severe restrictions to her mobility adds another layer of meaning to overarching theme – the extent to which these women have control over choices concerning their bodies. A good one for book groups as there’s quite a lot to discuss…

      Reply
  5. Max Cairnduff

    Delighted you enjoyed this Jacqui. I think it’s possibly Pineiro’s best in translation though I do love her Thursday Night Widows. She’s not written a bad book I’ve seen and I’ve read all of the translated ones now, but this is next level.

    It reminded me slightly of the Korean movie Mother, but the social aspects here add a lot including as you draw out how the constraints on women’s bodily autonomy (some policed by other women). That and the incredible depiction of Parkinson’s.

    All that and it’s actually a pretty easy read, assuming you can get comfortable with the intimate description of a terrible disease. It’s well structured and has momentum, framed as you say by the pill timings.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, a really tremendous novel, and I’m not surprised to hear you say it’s her best in translation. (As I slight aside, I wonder why it’s taken so long to get an English translation? As far as I could tell, it was published in Spanish in 2007, but the translation only came through last year. Maybe it wasn’t quite the right fit for Bitter Lemon Press given their focus on crime fiction? It’s difficult to tell.) Anyway, there are another four of Pineiro’s novel still to be translated so maybe Charco will look at some of those in the future?

      I’m glad you’ve reminded me about Thursday Night Widows as I have a copy of that somewhere, it’s just a question of digging it out…

      Mother I’ve yet to see, but it sounds like the kind of film that might pop up on Mubi at some point. Fingers crossed for a Bong Joon-ho retrospective in the near future, then I’ll be able to catch it!

      Reply
  6. heavenali

    Fantastic review. I loved this book, it is really a briilliantly understated piece of writing. Although I only wrote a mini review of it, it is a novel that has really stayed with me. What the author depicts Elena’s illness and how her body, and the care sector lets her down is really powerful.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ali! I’ll have to go back and have a look at your mini review to see what you said about it. That’s a great point about Elena being let down by the healthcare system – all that bureaucracy must be a nightmare for patients and their families to navigate, as you probably know yourself…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, absolutely. It feels very timely. Guy is a Pineiro fan too, I think. I can’t recall if he’s reviewed this one, but he’s definitely written about her in the past.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s very clever in how it uses a mysterious tragedy to shine a light on urgent social issues. Even though it was originally published in 2007, it still feels very timely today.

      Reply
  7. james b chester

    Interesting review and an interesting discussion here.

    I really loved this book, though it’s been a while since I read it. I recall being struck by how Elena continues to try to force her own view of the world on the world itself. Her daughter must be innocent of suicide to fit Elena’s view of what her daughter was. Just like the woman she seeks out have been better off with her baby because Elena knows all women would be.

    At some point Elena must know that she is wrong, even if only in the end.

    I was knocked out by the ending, too, and it stayed with me for quite some time.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s a really great way of expressing it, James. As you say, Elena is effectively trying to force her view of the situation on everyone she meets, from the detective to the priest, and finally Isabel. It’s such a clever way of exploring all the various issues around belief systems — and the dangers of imposing our views on those around us without seeking to understand or appreciate their point of view.

      Reply
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