Tuesday, May 12, 2015


Title: Prayers for the Stolen
Author: Jennifer Clement
Publisher: Hogarth
Pages: 224

Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement is a fictional account of a mountain village in the state of Guerrero, in Mexico, through the eyes of Ladydi Garcia Martinez. 

Her village has the unfortunate reputation of having no men around to protect its young girls, who are kidnapped or ‘stolen’ by drug traffickers. It is a village where only boys are born, and then some of the boys morph into ugly girls at puberty to prevent them from getting stolen. The best thing you can be in Mexico is an ugly girl.

Young Ladydi grows up under the influence and in the care of her beer loving, kleptomaniac mother. Her father, like all the other men, has long since left the village, crossing over illegally into the paradise that is the USA to begin a new life.

Much of the story takes us into the lives of Ladydi, and her three best friends: Paula, who is more beautiful than Jennifer Lopez and is the only one of the ‘stolen’ girls to return home, besides Maria who is born with a harelip and need never fear being stolen, and Estefani, taller and gawkier than any of the girls.

The author pulls us into the searing heat and heart of the story. The setting is stark and bereft of any colour. The writing is un-pretty, like the girls here are made to be, steering clear of embellishments to tell it like it is. It invokes the hot land of rubber plants, snakes, iguanas, and scorpions. It is this very sense of emptiness that gives the prose its own peculiar beauty. 

The heat is such that it made iguanas and lizards sleep with their eyes at half mast. The climactic conditions, coupled with the desertion of the women by the menfolk, and the danger of living with the fear of the drug lords and the marijuana killing pesticide infestations, makes the people of Guerrero as dangerous as a white, transparent scorpion that’s hidden in bed, under a pillow.

The pesticide spraying causes a number of children to be born with deformities as a result of the liberal spraying of poisons to kill the crop of marijuana and poppies. The hurt, damage and brokenness become the reality of the people. The troubles of the people are bound in governmental apathy and corruption. The poppy growers shoot at the helicopters that dare to come too close in their attempts to spray pesticide on the crops. So the army sprays the poison on the houses, giving the villagers one more reasons to deplore their lives.

In such a scenario, Ruth’s beauty parlour becomes the place of temporary rebellion where, at least for a while, girls could get themselves to look pretty and imagine a normal world, before taking off the nail polish and the make up and heading home, striving to appear ugly.

In spite of the lack of colour around the writing, it still retains its own brand of flavour. Much like the hexes that the mountain people employ. May a gigantic termite grow in his navel, or an ant in his ear.

When the book begins, the four friends are around 8-9 years of age. Their lives revolve around deliberately blackening their teeth to appear ugly and hiding in rabbit holes whenever they hear the drug traffickers’ black SUVs in the distance.

When they find a corpse close to their house, Ladydi’s mother digs a hold to bury the boy for fear of drawing attention towards Ladydi.

The story moves on, not in a linear fashion, but in bits and spurts, as we piece together the shreds of information that Jennifer gives us. You don’t know what to make of Ladydi’s mother. She is selfish sometimes, but the love is unmistakably there as seen in her efforts to hide and protect her daughter.

We see an assortment of characters through the filter of Ladydi’s perspective, friends Paula, Estefani and Maria, teacher Jose Rosa, and the mothers. In spite of being little, Ladydi is exposed to grown up truths, the fact that her father is a lying cheat who has slept with all the women on their mountain, that Estefani’s father gave her mother the AIDS virus. There was no sense in sugarcoating these truths because living in a place where there were no men was like living where there were no trees or like being asleep without dreams.

The descriptions are all figurative, rather than factual. Ladydi’s mother slithered with her feet slipping too far forward in her plastic flip-flops so that her toes curled over the front of the sandals like talons. People stay indoors at night because the night belongs to the drug traffickers, the army, and the police just like it belongs to the scorpions

The descriptions of the insects are so intense that you can actually feel them crawling up your back. It is a place where scorpions might show you mercy but drug traffickers would not.

The slow lethargy of things hits us, holding us firmly in its grasp. A missing woman is just another another leaf that goes down the gutter in a rainstorm. Ruth is stolen and then Paula. One year later, Paula stumbles back home, a wreck of her former self, having to be babied by her mother. 

There is a profusion of insects everywhere, on the mountains, in the homes. It is as if the insects have a greater right to the land than even the women, and so Ladydi’s mother seeks to escape her reality by watching the History Channel on TV, escaping into other lands and cultures. Ladydi learns of the world around her, through snippets gleaned from her mother.

Part II sees Ladydi leave with Mark, Maria’s brother, to be a nanny to the son of a very rich family in Acapulco. But it is the beginning of another nightmare. Mark gives Ladydi a brick of heroin to hide until he can take it from her. When police find the body of the young child that he has killed, he names Ladydi as his accomplice. Ladydi goes to jail, where she realises how vulnerable she is. My skin was on the inside and all my veins and bones were on the outside.

The horror of being young and beautiful and poor in Mexico, watching your future destroyed in your present, knowing that you are just one among many who live sordid lives, trying to sneak across the border into the US, knowing that if you are caught, death awaits you. Knowing that you will die a hundred deaths of shame and humiliation in the crossing itself. That is what this book brings out.

The settings where Ladydi finds herself, the jungles, the big house at Acapulco and the jail all have this in common: their impersonalness and their ability to suck your very soul out if you let them.

Read this book and discover just how writing can be stark and intense at the same time.

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