Marcela Serrano is a well-known writer in Chile, but Ten Women is the first of her books to be translated into English. The concept underlying the book is straightforward: nine women, all clients (some paying, some pro bono) of the same psychologist come together to tell their stories to one another. After the nine speak, an assistant to the psychologist tells the psychologist’s story as well. These chapters are framed by very brief opening and closing vignettes describing the psychologist viewing the women at a distance as they arrive for this group session.
I wanted very much to love this book. I’m particularly interested in literature from post-Pinochet Chile, and the idea of such a multiplicity of narrative voices was tantalizing. I wanted to love this book. But I didn’t. I’m not sorry I read it. I learned from it. But that act of reading was rather like eating a large serving of Swiss chard: I knew it was good for me, but the experience wasn’t intrinsically rewarding.
The women in Ten Women represent a broad range of classes, ages, and life experiences, including a young lesbian; the wife of a man who was “disappeared” during the Pinochet regime; a well-known television host; a poor woman struggling to provide not only for herself, but for her bipolar daughter and disabled mother as well. Unfortunately—and I don’t know if this is a characteristic of the original or a result of the translation—these voices come across in a sort of monotone, difficult to differentiate from one another.
The structure Serrano uses, while interesting in concept, is part of the problem here. The book is essentially ten monologues with almost no cross reference. Each woman speaks about herself, but we hear only her voice as she speaks. There’s no exchange of words among characters. In addition, we’re not offered visuals of the group or the room in which they’re meeting, so our experience is abstract. We get no interplay of voices, no facial expressions or body language.
The distance inherent in the monologues becomes most perplexing when the story of Natasha, the psychologist, is told by Natasha’s assistant. Natasha’s story is interesting, but doesn’t explain why she hasn’t met with the group herself or why she’s decided that this indirect form of self-revelation is appropriate in this therapeutic setting.
One learns about the details of daily life for women in contemporary Chile: the expectations and opportunities that are largely regulated by class. However, since we can’t really connect with these too-similar-despite-their-differences women emotionally and since the novel as a whole lacks any narrative arc, what we get is a set of details that could have been communicated with equal efficiency in a shorter work of sociological non-fiction.
If you’re interested in understanding some of the variety of contemporary Chileña experience, read this book. However, if you’re hoping to build relationships with characters and to travel along beside them you’ll be disappointed.