The Best Hard Read: Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement

Jennifer Clement’s Prayers for the Stolen is going on my “essentials” shelf, my place of honor for books that merit regular rereading.

Prayers for the Stolen is a hard read, but an absolutely brilliant read. By hard, I don’t mean turgid prose or endless, unnecessary detail. It’s a hard read in that the lives of all the characters are unrelentingly hard, but the reader so quickly becomes attached to these characters that after the first few pages one is absolutely committed to the book.

Prayers for the Stolen is primarily set in a small hillside community in Guerero, not far from Acapulco, where “Everyone’s goal was to never come back.” This community is a shadow of its former self—now divided by the highway to Acapulco, it’s been fragmented; all the males have left for work in the U.S. and most have broken ties with the wives and children left behind; and the women who remain are at the mercy of the members of the drug cartels that flourish in the area. It’s the women in this book who are “the stolen,” kidnapped by cartel members either for personal use or to be sold for profit.

The central characters in this book are a quartet of teen-aged girls growing up under the strict eyes of their mothers who do all they can, first to pass their daughters off as sons, and then, when that is no longer possible, to make their daughters ugly in hopes that this will spare them from abduction: hair is cut short and badly, teeth are deliberately stained with magic marker. These four are Paula, a remarkable beauty; Estefani, whose mother is dying of AIDS; Maria, the illegitimate half-sister of the book’s narrator; and the narrator herself, Ladydi (as in England’s Lady Di).

Through Ladydi’s voice, Clement’s book walks a fine balance, presenting the difficulties of the characters’ day-to-day lives in a neutral tone that keeps the events described from becoming unbearable for the reader, but that at the same time adds to the misery depicted, since this tone makes it clear that the events being narrated are ordinary—not moments of unusual terror or suffering. This is the way life is on Ladydi’s hillside.

In this community, no one dares open herself too fully to others, not even to God. Ladydi’s mother warns her,

Don’t every pray for love and health…. Or money. If God hears what you really want, He will not give it to you. Guaranteed.

When my father left my mother said, Get down on your knees and pray for spoons.

This book doesn’t have a happy ending—except insofar as some of the characters remain alive at its close. Still, it’s oddly hopeful. Every day survived is a triumph of sorts, even if these triumphs remain uncelebrated and never lead to comfort or a change of circumstances.

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