Review and synopsis by Ezra Lunel

A young girl comes of age amidst the threat of abduction and the brutal violence of narco-terrorists, in the rubble of families devastated by the loss of their men who immigrate north but never return.
This is  a deeply empathetic, keenly observed first-person narrative of what it’s like for a young girl to grow up in rural Mexico victimized by the constant threat of abduction and by random acts of violence inflicted by Mexico’s drug lords and their underlings.
The novel’s sensitive portrayal of life in this small village is detailed and eye-opening; the writing is clean and spare; the reader’s heart goes out to the victims of this chaos. But aside from some occasionally suspenseful moments, the narrative contains very little actual “story.” Through a series of tragic events, we witness the slow disintegration of this one small village, but the protagonist herself is little more than an eye-witness to these events - and her own story, of which there is very little, lacks any major story events or dramatic arc.
As well-observed, engaging and revealing a portrait this is of a place (rural Guerrero) and a moment in time – an era of narco control and terrorism – there is very little by way of a cohesive story on which to hang the myriad details and events, large and small, that are recounted here.
In some ways, Ladydi herself - a sweet, sensitive and sensible young girl - is a cipher. She observes the maelstrom of events around her with a keen eye, but fails to give us any real impression of why these events are important, or in what context they should be understood other than as straight, if poetic, observer’s accounts. What is lacking is both an overarching theme (say, government corruption, the effects of male migration to the U.S., a romantic coming of age story) and instead we get little bits of all of these, plus more (the value of friendship, maternal domination, etc.) blended in equal measure. Since this is everybody’s story, it ends up being no one person’s actual story.
(Spoiler alert)
Part I
Ladydi Garcia Martinez is a young girl of 14 living in a tropical village in the hills around Chilpancingo, Mexico, north of Acapulco. She and the other girls of the village are forced to keep their hair short and looks as boyish and ugly as possible to avoid the roaming eyes of potential narco kidnappers. She recalls the abduction of one her best friends, the beautiful Paula, and her miraculous return to the village years later.
The town lacks men, like Ladydi’s father, who migrate to the U.S., but then eventually stay there. This has turned Ladydi's mother, Rita, who works as a housemaid in Acapulco, into an angry, bitter alcoholic, addicted to TV documentaries.
We witness the arrival of a convoy of soldiers escorting mercy surgeons from Mexico City to the village clinic. The doctors perform surgery on Ladydi’s friend Maria’s harelip as the soldiers standby, watchful of the threat of a narco attack. The village people wait anxiously in Ruth’s bullet-riddled beauty parlor as a convoy of narco SUVs storm past them.
On the way home, Rita spots low-flying vultures and finds an unknown young man’s corpse in the field. She and Ladydi hurriedly bury the body for fear of attracting unwanted police or narco attention to the village. Later that evening, drinking her rage away, Rita confesses to Ladydi that her father was a philanderer. Ladydi is shocked to discover that Maria is actually her half-sister.
With the arrival of Jose Rosa the new village teacher, from Mexico City – and now the only adult male in the village – the women buzz with excitement. Rita invites him to dinner and embarrasses herself and Ladydi by getting very drunk. The day before he leaves the village, however, Jose Rosa bestows Ladydi with a coveted kiss.
An SUV rumbles down the road to their hut. Rita hollers for Ladydi to hide in a pit that her father dug for this purpose. When Rita tells the cowboy-booted narco and his asthmatic sidekick that she doesn’t have a daughter, they machine-gun the adobe hut but spare Rita’s life. But they do succeed in kidnapping the lovely Paula from her home.
Ladydi recalls finding a traumatized, tattooed Paula miraculously returned to the village some number of months or years later. Her arm is marked by cigarette burns, the sign of a narco sex slave. Paula recounts her experience at the northern narco ranch: the exotic animals they kept, and the other kidnapped women.
In another of her drunken rages, Rita shoots Maria in the arm, vengeance for being the illegitimate child of her philandering husband. Ladydi rushes Maria to a hospital in Acapulco, but never sees her again.
Part II
Maria’s brother Mike, a small time dope dealer in his twenties, offers Ladydi the opportunity to work as a nanny at a rich family’s home in Acapulco. On the drive in, Mike stops to conduct a transaction with some narcos at a drug lab, leaving Ladydi to wait in the car, then returns, splattered with blood, with a brick of heroin.
At the mansion, Ladydi meets the aging housekeeper Jacaranda and the handsome young gardener Julio, with whom she falls deeply in love. With the owners gone, their life at the mansion is an idyll – working days, lovemaking nights. Julio tells Ladydi his story of killing an US Border Patrol agent and living with the fear of being caught.
Mike is caught and accused of murdering the biggest drug lord in the country and his little daughter. The police raid the mansion and find the heroin. Julio flees. Ladydi is arrested and accused of being an accomplice to the murders.
Part III
At the jail in Mexico City, Ladydi falls in a with Luna and a group of women convicts who share their sorrows and support and protect each other. Among them is Aurora, who, by coincidence was held captive by the drug lord along with Paula, and is accused of using of murdering the drug lord with rat poison.
Maria visits Ladydi in prison. She tells her that her own mother and Mike were mowed down by narcos outside their home.
Almost age 18, Ladydi is released from prison, pregnant with Julio’s child.
- Ezra Lunel
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