How much can we depend on others before we cease to be ourselves?
This is one of the central questions in Seeing Red, a semi-autobiographical novel written by Chilean writer Lina Meruane, and translated by Megan McDowell. On the back of the book, Literary Hub calls Meruane ‘one of the best contemporary novelists’. A bold statement, but one that is absolutely justified with such a novel. Seeing Red is the story of Lucina, a young Chilean writer living in New York. One night, at a party, her eyes haemorrhage. All she sees is blood. What unfolds is the harrowing story of how Lucina copes with her near blindness, and how such a disability seeps into every part of her life.
The blood gushed, but only I could see it. With absolutely clarity I watched as it thickened. I saw the pressure rise, I didn’t straighten up or move an inch as I watched the show. Because that was the last thing I would see, that night, through that eye: a deep, black blood.
The book follows Lucina back to Santiago, Chile, where she fiercely resists falling into the arms of her family, who are ‘armed to the teeth with love’. We learn about the protagonist’s rocky relationship with her mother and get intimate insight into the sibling dynamic. That intimate insight isn’t always thorough, however. Meruane’s writing is minimalistic, with sparse detail and fragmented sentences, as if to mirror the protagonist’s condition. The character can’t see everything, so the author doesn’t let us either.
I see it all without seeing.
If there’s one thing you realise while reading, it’s that a haemorrhage is so much more than a physical disability. Meruane details the real and raw emotional struggles involved, which are probably enhanced by the author’s own experiences. Her protagonist Lucina battles between longing to be cared for and not wanting to feel like a liability to those around her, whether it be her mother, doctor, or boyfriend Ignacio. She won’t let herself be a victim of her disease, but she is powerless over her own eyes. While she faces a biological problem, it is one that makes Lucina question her entire identity. Who are we if we cannot see?
It was as if you were one-eyed, too, you couldn’t understand what had happened.
It is inevitable that a narrator with impaired sight will emphasise the other senses. However, the detail with which Meruane captures the sounds, smells, and tastes of New York and Santiago, the two primary settings of the book, is remarkable. Lucina picks up on ‘the real pretzel smell of Madison and 37th’ and ‘the first sound’ being ‘of hands taking dry plates from the rack’. Seeing Red reminds us that, though sight is the sense we tend to rely on the most, it is not our only one.
There I was, alone, before that voice that assaulted and penetrated my person. The voice kept coming closer, throwing words and some kind of perfume while she, the voice, but especially the sharp shoes, their heels drumming against the cement, said something that the wail of an ambulance kept me from understanding
The relationship most deeply explored in the book is the one between Lucina and her boyfriend, Ignacio. Meruane blurs every line there is. Sometimes Lucina reads as the one being manipulated, while within pages she becomes the manipulator. Both the victim and the victimiser. The wronged and the one doing wrong. There are no black and whites in Meruane’s world. Everything is stained with droplets of red. If nothing else, Seeing Red is a beautiful and faithful exploration of what it means to love someone, even when they can’t love themselves.
Under the sheets we lived in a jumble of newspapers, cassettes, and neglect, of sleepiness and carnivorous groping seasoned with anti-flu medicines (Ignacio) and painkillers and anti-inflammatories (me).
In spite of, but more likely because of, its intensity and honesty, Seeing Red isn’t the easiest of reads. For starters, the intensity of the subject matter makes us want to look away. On the writing side, the chapters can be dense, especially when narrated in a stream of consciousness fashion, in which the character’s thoughts jump from angry, to painful, to cruel. The novel comes in at just over 150 pages, but I recommend reading this one slowly. Inhale the language and allow Meruane’s metaphors some time to digest.
It was no fire I was seeing, it was blood spilling out inside my eye. The most shockingly beautiful blood I have ever seen.
Are our identities shaped by what we see? That is one of many questions Lina Meruane asks in her novel Seeing Red. A book that gives us insight without so much of the sight. What we see most of is the turmoil inside the protagonist’s head. We can touch her suffering, smell her determination, taste her guilt, and hear her desperate desire to be her own, independent self. It is an exploration of the power of one sense through the other four, and one absolutely worth the intensity, physicality, and occasional brutality.
Lina Meruane is one of the most prominent female voices in Chilean contemporary literature. A multi award-winning novelist, essayist, and cultural journalist, the Spanish version of her novel Seeing Red received the prestigious Mexican Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz Prize in 2012. Seeing Red has now been translated for the first time into English. She currently teaches World and Latin American Literature and Creative Writing at NYU.
Seeing Red was published by Atlantic Books if you would like to find out more click here…
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Reviewed by Alice Kouzmenko
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