Even though I finished reading this novel very late at night, I couldn't sleep for hours afterwards. The final, perplexing chapter had led me to question everything that preceded it; I wanted to trust the protagonist Elisa, but could I? Who was really mad - in a clinical sense of that overused term - Elisa, or her eccentric flatmate Susana?
As I wrestled with these and other questions posed by A Working Woman, I realised that I would always remember the experience of reading it for the first time; and that, I believe, can only be said of the very best fiction.
Elisa, the book's hypersensitive narrator, is in her twenties and lives in a rough suburb of Madrid roamed by hostile gypsies. She is an aspiring novelist and pays the rent by working as a freelance copy editor for a publishing company - a perilously insecure gig for which she frequently endures penury.
On long walks through outer Madrid's brutal urban landscapes, Elisa muses about her odd flatmate Susana, who is a bipolar-depressive with bizarre sexual tendencies. But as the novel progresses and Elisa heads towards a breakdown herself, we are led to question the reliability of her narrative. The result is a book that lingers in the memory as much for its tough and beautiful prose as for its perplexing protagonists.
A question at the heart of this novel is how much we can trust its troubled narrator. In the opening section, Elisa recounts one of Susana's episodes of insanity, as experienced by the latter in Madrid many years before she became the protagonist's flatmate (at 44, Susana is around twenty years older than Elisa). Limiting her own interjections to short paragraphs in italics, Elisa tells Susan's story in the first person. It revolves around Susana's attempts to find a man willing to perform a weird sexual favour for her - an act that she suspects contains the seed of her insanity: “I think madness had hidden there, in that extreme but also tiny ambition, like swallowing a centipede tossed in the salad.”
Madness and medication
Yet in her italicised interjections, Elisa lets on that she herself is on medication for mental illness and prone to dropping off as Susana speaks. Elisa begins to suspect that Susana is taking advantage of her “drug-induced stupidity” by weaving ever-more-fantastic tales. Reality, in other words, is being filtered through two altered minds here - one by madness, the other by medication and, therefore, perhaps another variety of madness too. We are invited to wonder whether anything that Susana says happened to her at this time actually occurred.
By exploring the plights of her two protagonists through opaque narratives, Navarro invites the reader to contemplate the very nature of insanity itself. How exactly do we draw a distinction between clinical madness - i.e. the kind of condition for which professional treatment is necessary - to the gnawing anxiety and unhappiness we all feel at times?
Elisa experiences the latter as she struggles with job insecurity and loneliness in Madrid. She is clearly intelligent and well-educated, yet she toils at freelance editing on a meagre wage and sometimes goes for months without being paid. She is, understandably, anxious and depressed. And perhaps because we can see the causes of her inner turmoil, we don't think of her as mad (at least not for most of the novel's central section): indeed, the insecurities of her situation will be familiar to anyone who has moved to a big city to try and “make it”.
One day while taking a bus, though, Elisa experiences a panic attack - “an absolute chaos of [her] nervous system” - that makes her think she too is going insane. Navarro uses the incident to switch our perceptions of the two protagonists, and by the novel's close it is Susana who asks Elisa, “Are you crazy, or what?” The question is asked in one of the novel's most powerful scenes, when the two women walk in an abandoned Madrid suburb after dark. Elisa thinks she sees five ghostly figures watching them walk, but the narrative hints that she is hallucinating. Is she, too, mad?
The other main character of A Working Woman is Madrid itself. Nowhere is Navarro's descriptive talent more obvious than in the passages that deal with Elisa's nocturnal explorations of the capital's suburbs - areas littered with post-crisis, unfinished housing, most of it occupied by squatters stealing electricity from lampposts.
Informed by her own experiences of living in Madrid, Navarro describes areas that are almost post-apocalyptic in their decay and ugliness, imbuing each one with its own distinct character. Elisa seems to be searching for something on these lone expeditions; indeed, she describes herself towards the novel's close as “unconsciously interrogating the cityscape”. But the gritty urban wastelands give up nothing and Elisa finds no answers.
Found in translation
Elvira Navarro is rightly said to be one of the most exciting writers of contemporary Spanish fiction. The same can be said of all the authors that have appeared in this series over the last five weeks - a series that has shown, I hope, how brilliant and thought-provoking their writing is. And thanks to the work of some outstanding translators, we can now enjoy their best books in English.