American stories about people with powers often involve organizations and the general public getting swept up in their struggles. The government wants to use them! Scientists want to study them! The media will hound them! Those stories are always a bit fatiguing to me in their paranoia (not unjustified paranoia, but still), because in reality, people with gifts get overlooked all the time.
Eartheater by Dolores Reyes highlights the way that even a woman with a truly singular gift, one that gives her immense insight and power, is still a woman. She’s still seen as less than even when she can eat the earth a person has lived and walked upon and see their current fate. People don’t celebrate her; they fear and resent her, even try to murder her. And the gift itself is little consolation: sometimes she’s able to save someone, but other times she sees their worst and final moments, whether tragic accidents or brutal torture and murder. The Eartheater, like the earth, bears witness.
What she sees in the earth is terrible, but she also bears witness to some terrible things without any visions at all. Her father is abusive, her mother dies in the very first pages of the book, and another of her caretakers simply walks away from her. Fortunately, she also has things that lift her up: her brother Walter, her community, and her home. To balance her vicarious experiences of death, she takes intense pleasure in the small joys of life. Scenes of her eating food, enjoying sex, and even buying herself a luxurious towel are intensely felt, and kept the narrative from being too thoroughly traumatic.
Interestingly, the prose didn’t lean either toward the brutal or the blissful. So often, stories of violence will either revel in the gore, in making the reader see, or they try to wring beauty out of horror. Here, the Eartheater only tells her story, just so. Not unemotionally, but not overwrought. It’s blunt, but not in a way that feels like a jab. The prose isn’t trying to impress or force. It’s extremely matter-of-fact. Ironically, this makes the horror all the more potent: without the details, we’re forced to imagine all the worst possible things.
My only criticism of the writing style is that the short, sharp prose combined with fairly short vignettes from the narrator’s various encounters with earth eating makes the novel feel a bit like collections of shorter stories. Moments and scenes have resolution, but the overarching narrative does not entirely feel complete.
Still, this is a small issue with an otherwise incredibly strong novel. Its highs and lows are deeply felt, its magic is subtle and potent, and its message is terribly clear: those who hurt women, who exploit and destroy the vulnerable, there will always be a witness.
Also, a note: this is not magical realism. I should think that would be obvious, but since every Central and South American writer who has a single drop of magic in their story gets compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I wanted to make it absolutely clear. Please try to read more widely if you think everyone should be compared to Garcia Marquez. And that’s all I’m going to say on that.