THE PLOT: ‘The Queens of Sarmiento Park’ by Camilla Sosa Villada (translated by Kit Maude) is a literary novel about sex work, found family and gender identity. Set in Argentina, it’s centered around Auntie Encarna’s boarding house where the protagonist Camila finds refuge. The house is a haven for those rejected by their families and the women who live there head out to Sarmiento Park each night to earn money. But, when Auntie Encarna finds a baby boy in the park, she brings him home to care for him. Worried about community outrage, no one can know that the baby boy is there, which changes the dynamic of the boarding house forever.
RATING: This is a very special book so I’m giving it four stars. It’s not an easy book to read and I often got confused, but I read it in two days because the plot is fascinating, the writing is beautiful and the characters are heartbreaking. I’ll be honest, I’m sure a lot of the cultural references went over my head but I think it’ll appeal to reader who likes a light touch of magical realism and poetic symbolism. Additionally, I feel like I can appreciate the novel and I’m glad it wasn’t watered down for a western audience. This debut novel has won tons of prizes in Argentina and I’ll be surprised if the English translation isn’t nominated for international awards. Please note, I’ve deliberately not used the word ‘transwoman’ in my review as the author has a note on the terminology at the start of the novel and explains why she uses the word ‘travesti’ (which I believe is derogatory slang and therefore does not feel like appropriate language for me to use either).
GOOD BITS: This book is filled with violence, suicide and the harsh realities of life yet still manages to be delicate through its use of language. The poetic language used to convey some of the horrific atrocities committed against the women and, in particular, the “birth” of the baby boy gives this book a really strong sense of atmosphere and tone. My favourite character was Aunty Encarna and, at points, I wanted more of her story rather than our main character’s. However, I liked how the Camila’s story built up and the last 50 pages really spoke to me.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: Even though I read this book quickly, the pacing felt slow in places. This could be my lack of understanding of the context, but at points I felt like it was a list of characters and their individual stories and so I got mixed up with who was who. I also need someone to explain some of the symbolism, such as Maria turning into a bird because I associate the animal with freedom and singing, but it seemed like the author was making a point of the opposite. This might also be because I’m not a huge fan of magical realism (it often goes over my head).
OVERALL: I’d recommend this book to lovers of ‘Love in the Big City’ by Sang Young Park (voice, style), ’10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in this Strange World’ by Elif Shafak (found family, atmosphere), and ‘DeTransition, Baby’ by Torrey Peters (premise, theme). If you love lyrical writing and social issues, this is a book for you.
Thank you to Virago Press for my gifted copy of this book. It’s available to buy in the UK now.