Etcheverry writes from the perspective of a woman who has succeeded against all the odds, not once but twice. First, she made her way out of extreme poverty on the outskirts of the port city of Coquimbo to become a teacher in the Chilean capital, Santiago, where she married and set up home. Second, as an exile, initially speaking little English or French, she again had to start at the bottom to rebuild her life in Ottawa.
Etcheverry’s previous autobiographical novel Latitudes describes how the author, while pregnant, escaped to Canada with her husband from the terror of General Pinochet’s dictatorship. The idealism and naivety of the young couple stands in stark contrast to the insensible military machine that crushes their hopes and grinds over lives as if they are nothing.
Under the strain of the terror, the torture and murder of friends, and exile in Canada, her marriage disintegrated, despite the arrival of a baby daughter.
Most describe scenes in the shantytown where Josefina/Gabriela and her many brothers and sisters grow up, cared for by an immensely strong but overworked mother, but neglected and verbally abused by an irresponsible, philandering father. Whereas the mother is a Mapuche Indian, the father is of Spanish stock, an intellectual, an artist, a gifted yet unsuccessful pianist.
Not all is misery in the barrio, however, as people survive through the generosity and friendship of neighbours and family. Most of all there is maternal love. It is the life-force in Etcheverry’s writing, the force that keeps people going, that makes them want to do the right thing, even if they don’t.
Other stories offer off-beat glimpses into a community of immigrants (one imagines them to be exiles) adapting to Canada, and achieving a certain prosperity. Among them is the tale of a psychologist away from home who resumes a liaison, arranged around conferences, with her lover. She is not without means; she has choices. But the thought that the lover may propose a choice she doesn’t want to hear makes her panic.
In another story, a painter uses her vibrant sex appeal to get men into bed and cover up her depression, but eventually she cracks. All she paints in picture after picture is a terrified woman fleeing from a man.
The final chapter joins up the two worlds. A singer, after a long absence abroad, returns to the barrio, which is rebuilt and modern (a concrete house has replaced the adobe shack in which she was raised), to see her dying father. Her mother died long ago, and a brother now looks after the family home. She is searching for the father she had to leave.
Her brother has stayed and looked after the old man, but is, like most of the siblings, less forgiving of his faults than she is. “Where is Papa?” she wants to know. The answer may surprise you.