The Hand that Feeds You, Mercedes Rosende Review

the hand that feeds you mercedes rosende bookblast review

The Hand that Feeds You is the eighth exhilarating, dark thriller by Mercedes Rosende, and the second of her trilogy featuring a forceful and impressive female detective. Not all thrillers have to feature gory murders and balding, divorced, alcoholic private investigators!

Though if you are thinking of visiting Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay . . . of maybe checking out its magnificent Theatre Solis, its world-famous art-deco buildings, and then strolling along the Ramblas . . . then you don’t want to read The Hand that Feeds You . . .

The story begins after a heist within a heist. It’s about a duel between three characters. The hero is Ursula, a certain type of Everywoman: in her forties, overweight and still stunned by the death of her demanding father. She’s lived “years of measured boredom, of comfortable hatred . . . a life of silent telephones and boiled pumpkin, a life lived beneath a fine layer of dust.”

The villain is Antinucci, a horrendously crooked lawyer, up to his neck in corrupt schemes and violent crime. He drives an Audi A6, with a small, discreet altar on its dashboard, listens to Bach’s St Matthew Passion while driving, pays $1,500 for acupuncture to stop smoking, has fifty pairs of Italian leather shoes, wears a Luftwaffe watch and believes in “God and the bosses . . . in that order.” He plans the first heist.

The third character is Montevideo itself, “a sad, melancholic city with beautiful beaches and the narrow-minded customs of a small town . . . A gentle, friendly city, green and hospitable, a city that, when it reveals its underbelly and its sewers, can be a very frightening place.”

For Rosende, this is a city in decline. It’s a city where nothing works and nothing gets fixed. The elegant old lift in Ursula’s apartment block, made of wood and brass and steel, has been stuck between the first and second floors for months. Ursula’s certainty that it will never be repaired becomes an important element in the plot. One of the novel’s secondary characters lives in the Palacio Salvo apartment block. This was once the tallest building in South America, but now it strives ” . . . to maintain its art deco dignity despite the plastic fittings and cheap tiles that have replaced the metalwork and the marble, despite the man who sells Chinese watches from a folding table at the door . . .”

Even Antinucci, the villain, is driven to rage at the thought of the constant inefficiency of the city. “Is there nobody in this country who can do a job properly?” he asks himself. Looking at Ursula’s apartment block, he falls into nostalgia. “What times they were, what craftsmen the country boasted, people who came over from Europe to build beautiful houses.”

entrance to Punta Carretas shopping centre Montevideo mercedes rosende review
The entrance to the Punta Carretas shopping centre in Montevideo – the site of an old prison which opened as a shopping centre in 1994. It is the scene for the novel’s climax. Source: Wikipedia

This entropy and decline form the backdrop for the duel between Ursula and Antinucci. The structure of the novel is unusual. We begin after the main episode of explosive action, after the heist of an armoured bank truck organized by Antinucci and after Ursula’s surprise intervention, the heist within the heist, in which she saves the life of Diego, a one-time bank-robber and her boyfriend. The narrative concerns Antinucci’s attempts to get even with Ursula and her attempts to escape him.

Rosende plays with the reader. Most of the chapters are written in an informal third-person, with Rosende often joking with the reader; “Let us pass over Ursula and Diego’s walk to the Rara Avis, which takes a mere five minutes at a leisurely pace and during which nothing worthy of mention occurs.” A few chapters switch to the first-person and there’s also one chapter written in the form of second-person questions directed to Ursula.

Along the way, Rosende fires off comic observations. In a hospital, “. . . a woman in a white lab coat bursts in and, from the arrogant, scornful expression on her face, it would be impossible to confuse her with anyone who is below God. In other words, she’s a doctor. . .”  When Ursula is carrying a heavy suitcase, a young man promptly approaches to help her. “[Uruguayan men], she thinks, always so chivalrous. It never fails: they can’t see a woman in distress without fanning out their feathers like peacocks.” These jokes and jibes lighten the atmosphere of The Hand that Feeds You, translated by Tim Gutteridge.

The novel’s original Spanish title is Qué ganas de no verte nunca más, the title of a classic ballad written in 1984 for Valeria Lynch and covered many times since. The phrase could be translated as “I never want to see you again.” It’s a sort of Spanish-language “I Will Survive”. This reflects the strong theme of female solidarity that runs through the novel.

In sum, Mercedes Rosende has written is an engrossing journey through Montevideo’s lower depths, with a plot which stretches out into spirals but never falls down. Ursula and Antinucci are memorable characters, both caught in impossible situations from which they try to extricate themselves. Her strong, complex female characters break away from conventional gender stereotypes, and convey the real voices of women coping with everyday dramas and pressures, underpinned by dark humour. She gives her readers a local Uruguayan perspective on culture, society, and life, as well as  addressing universal themes, making her work accessible to a global audience.

Rosende now lives in Galicia, having previously lived in Argentina and north-west France, and having also worked for several months in Haiti and Bolivia. She has a unique way of blending noir, mystery, and humour. Her novels have been translated into English, German, Italian and French. La Casa de los Gatos was awarded the 2019 Premio Nacional de Literatura in Uruguay.

A fan of John Cheever, Anita Brookner, Patrick Modiano, Richard Ford, Margaret Atwood and the less known Latin American writers Jon Bilbao, David Llorente and Cristina Sánchez-Andrade, she did not start to write until she was fifty years old. “I like to tell people that retirement and old age do not veer between intense activity and knitting. A new life awaits, along with other activities. I work more now than when I practiced my profession, and am much happier,” from an interview in Librujula, 11 June 2023.

Read the BookBlast review of Crocodile Tears by Mercedes Rosende also translated by Tim Gutteridge and published by Bitter Lemon Press.

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Reviewed by Sharif Gemie for BookBlast.

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About Sharif Gemie 11 Articles
Sharif Gemie was a lecturer in Modern & Contemporary History. Now retired, he lives in South Wales. His book, The Hippie Trail: A History, co-authored with Brian Ireland, is published by Manchester University Press (2017). His first novel, 'The Displaced', about a British couple who volunteer to work with refugees in Germany in 1945, will be published in November 2023. Most recently he has had short pieces published in 'Cerasus Magazine' issue 10 and 'Muleskinner Journal' (July 2023).

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