In her swirling debut novel "The Threads of the Heart," the French writer Carole Martinez follows the turbulent life of Frasquita Carasco, a 19th century Spanish seamstress with mystical powers.
The witty, dark and surreal novel is narrated by Soledad, the last of Frasquita's six children. Soledad's colorful commentary binds together the fantastical stories of her outcast family in the small fictional village of Santavela in southern Spain and then in Morocco.
The novel was originally published in France in 2007 by Martinez, a teacher and former actress. Europa Editions has just published an English translation by Howard Curtis that showcases Martinez's lyrical writing.
After Frasquita has her first menstrual period, her mother takes her to the local graveyard. In a darkly comic scene, she is ordered by an otherworldly voice to recite prayers that can heal the sick and revive the dead. In broad and enticing strokes, Martinez paints the eerie world that Frasquita enters. Eventually, supernatural forces give her a magical sewing kit.
Martinez's ear for eccentric characters and local buffoons is wonderful. She depicts rival religious groups in Santavela, for example, who carry on profanity-laced battles during Holy Week.
Martinez throws in magical realist pyrotechnics to great effect. Sequences in which Frasquita's blacksmith husband Jose behaves like a rooster, even moving into a chicken coop for two years and sabotaging Frasquita's egg business, allow Martinez to write a mirthful yet harsh vignette satirizing the pointless machismo of European men.
Martinez also builds a family of superb characters. Among Frasquita's first five children are Angela, with a voice that can start rebellions; Martirio, who can give the kiss of death; and Clara, who exudes a holy light at all times.
After Frasquita's husband gambles away his wife's virtue and the family's house and furniture, the story follows Frasquita's story as she takes her children and flees. They encounter violence, madness and death before arriving in Morocco, where Frasquita achieves fame and fortune with her magical sewing skills. The author deftly handles the absurdity and brutality that occur in some of these scenes; in Martinez's world, Death is always an amused figure, waiting nearby to start her handiwork.
There is undeniable deep talent in Martinez's lyrical prose and vivid images. But the publisher may have erred in comparing Martinez's work to that of the Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Both writers use magical realism, but Garcia Marquez is like an eight-course meal with too much wine and a bawdy Spanish uncle, while Martinez is more like a trip to a funky tapas bar with a couple of hip yuppies.
What Martinez excels at is telling the secret stories of women, which are not of war, machismo and violence but stories from the heart and tales of surviving foolish men.
"[S]ince Genesis and the beginning of books, men have slept with History," writes Martinez. "But there are other stories. Subterranean stories conveyed in the secrets of women, tales buried in the ears of daughters, sucked in with mothers' milk, words drunk from mothers' lips."
Through the lives of Frasquita's daughters, Martinez draws fully fleshed-out characters and uses them to show how superstition through religion can obliterate a beautiful voice, and how sexual jealousy can lead to depraved acts against those we love. Martinez uses gallows humor and wry acceptance of fate to create a fluid, rich novel.
Dylan Foley is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.
"The Threads of the Heart"
By Carole Martinez, Europa Editions, 400 pages, $17