Mystery Books for Sale

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by Nicolas Ferraro and Mallory Craig-Kuhn, trans.
Soho Crime, January 2024
312 pages
ISBN: 1641295155

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

A fifteen-year-old girl, Ámbar, relates the story of the trip through northern Argentina with her father, Victor Mondragón, a gangster who is in search of a hitman who has killed a friend and who now is searching to do the same to Victor. Ámbar is no stranger to the consequences of her father's vocation. He has been her only parent for most of her life and taken her on similar forays, most complicated by extreme danger and considerable gore. Much of the blood is Victor's and for the last several years, Ámbar has acted as his medic, sewing him up, bathing his wounds, and offering general support.

But Ámbar is now fifteen, and like many teenagers wants her own life, separate from her family. Victor loves his daughter to the limited degree he is able to love but he cannot think of her as separate from himself. The slightly creepy title of the English translation, MY FAVORITE SCAR, is something that Victor says and captures his point of view. His favorite scar is his daughter's name, tattooed on his upper arm along with a couple of hibiscus flowers. The original title of the book was simply Ámbar. Given the substance of the novel, that is a more appropriate title as the entire tale is conveyed by Ámbar herself, first person and present tense.

And here we come to the major problem I had in reviewing this work. Ferraro is well-regarded in Argentina and has received excellent reviews and a significant award. But we are dealing here with an English version, not the original and it is difficult for me, who has no Spanish, to fairly assess the book itself. Do not misunderstand - I love reading translations, especially in languages I do not have, as they provide a way of experiencing a different culture without my actually having to relocate for an awkward period of time . But that is the case only when the translation reasonably reflects the intentions of the original text.

Ferraro has chosen a difficult task for this, his second crime novel. It would seem to be very difficult for a thirty-seven year old male writer to successfully capture the thoughts and feelings of a fifteen-year-old girl. Not impossible, but very hard. Ámbar is not particularly convincing - there are few glaring gaffes, but few convincing moments in which she emerges as fully imagined.

But is this the result of the author's failure or of the translator's? I find it impossible to say. Certainly this translation is far from ambitious. There appears to be meaning conveyed in phrases of very idiomatic Spanish or Paraguayan Guarani but these are left untranslated. Certain brand names, presumably employed by the author to establish something about character or situation, remain mysterious to anyone unfamiliar with the milieu and so convey nothing but a bit of puzzlement.

As the book heads toward the inevitably gore-splattered climax, this reader was unable to decide what it all meant. What sort of fate awaits Ámbar? She has had little schooling and the influence and example of older women in her life has been minimal. What will she do when she is no longer her father's favorite scar? In what direction has her unusual upbringing pointed her? There is little space in her father's trade for any woman, except as comforter to her man and mother to his kids. Ámbar may be mildly attracted to a young man but is already growing tired of the life. Unlike Tina, the central focus of Maria Rosa Cuttrufelli's semi-fictional TINA, MAFIA SOLDIER , published a generation ago but only now finally translated into English, Ámbar has no evident desire to take up her father's profession, but has been prepared for nothing else. Whether this suspended ending is deliberate or results from an inadequate translation is difficult to say.

§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, January 2024

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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