Review: Elena Knows - Claudia Piñeiro
Genre: literary fiction
Published: Charco Press, July 2021
My Rating: 4.5/5 stars
"Is she still a mother now that she doesn't have a child? If it had been her who'd died, Rita would have been an orphan. What name does she 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?"
If nothing else, Elena Knows is one of the few books I’ve read recently that does justice to the experience of living with a debilitating illness on an every-day basis, and deserves the attention it’s gathered just for that. In this short but impactful novel, Parkinson’s Disease turns a woman’s seemingly simple travels by train from one side of town to the other, into a exhausting journey involving strict planning of train-times and medication-breaks alike.
For the past few years, Elena’s life has been controlled by the late stages of her disease. She feels as if “she doesn’t have Parkinson’s; rather it has her. Her life of intermittent stillness is uprooted when the worst happens. Worse than a terminal diagnosis; Elena learns her daughter Rita has been found dead in the church belltower, dangling from a rope. The police are quick to rule it a suicide, but Elena knows differently.
What I liked:
The entirety of Elena Knows is structured in a unique way, yet a very familiar one to anyone suffering from a chronic illness that requires medication. Elena, dependent on her Levodopa to function properly, structures her day into medication-times. As such, her entire journey takes place over the course of a day, broken up by flashbacks of her remeniscing on the past, followed by “the second pill”. Not only the narrative, but also the pacing and cadence of the writing seem to match the rhythm of Elena’s day’s. It’s an incredible feat of writing (and translating), that alone makes it deserving of it's multiple award-nominations in my opinion. It also brings a fresh and relatable take on the representation of chronic illness that I haven’t seen before, but am glad to see now.
For a novel this short, Elena Knows manages to fit a deeply impressive number of heavy themes into its pages; from motherhood, to suicide, to bodily autonomy, to disability and caregiving, and more… Although these might sound unrelated at first, leave it to Pineiro to show you exactly where they all overlap and intersect.
What I didn’t like:
Elena. Don’t get me wrong; it get that’s completely intentional. Elena is presented as quite the imperfect and unlikable protagonist; foul-mouthed, overly-traditionalist, set in her ways, and often judgemental and cold in her attitute towards her daughter. This might put some readers off, but ultimately worked in the books favour for me personally. Too often we see disabled characters (especially disabled women) portrayed as helpless, innocent for the reader to pity and “awww” over.
I liked that Elena wasn’t presented as a pitiful old lady, who was done a disservice by life. instead she felt like a fully fleshed out, flawed character, and guess what: us disabled folks are real people too.
My only true complaint with the novel was the ending, which felt very abrupt. I didn’t need full closure, as it wouldn’t have fit this particular story, but the point where we left felt a little like there might have been a final chapter missing.
Overall; I highly recommend this book as a masterclass in writing-structure and short fiction, as well as a great book on the day-to-day struggle of a disablity like this one.
You can find this book here on Goodreads.