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‘Grandma, Do You Think You Were Good in Bed?’ and Other Questions

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OLDLADYVOICE
By Elisa Victoria
Translated by Charlotte Whittle

At 9 years old, Marina says “oldladyish” things in a “husky” voice, so the kids at school call her “Oldladyvoice.” Elisa Victoria’s first novel, however, focuses more on her narrator’s thoughts than on what she ends up saying out loud. Marina wants, for example, to know more about her mother’s mysterious illness, but instead of asking her grandmother whether her mother will survive the treatments she’s been undergoing, Marina asks: “Grandma, do you think you were good in bed?”

Victoria handles the child’s narration dexterously. The mother seldom appears, but when she does, she’s as intriguing to the reader as she is to Marina. There’s something shifty about her. You never know what you’re going to get. She’s alive. We know as little as Marina does about her condition, but it’s what drives the plot: Because of it, Marina might be sent away to Catholic school, and so she has to get baptized. As she puts it, “The idea is to send me to the nuns if things get ugly.”

When her mother is hospitalized, Marina is left with her flamboyant grandmother, their days full of memorable scenes, many taking place in front of the TV. Watching a talk show about love one day, Marina observes, “Grandma and I join in loudly and say what we think, like a couple of extra panelists at the table.” The TV is its own character in the novel: It’s 1993, “Baywatch” is on and commercials make for minor events in their lives. At one point, her grandmother summons Marina to the living room, pointing at the ad for her perfume. As they both watch in awe (“I wonder what kind of fit of passion drives so many women to come flying out of their houses in these ads,” Marina thinks), the reader is sent back to this simpler time, when the attention-suck of a screen was more likely to be experienced communally.

Relying on short, declarative sentences, Victoria has a knack for bringing characters to life in few words (“He’s got a stutter and is also a know-it-all, which is a tricky combination”). But combined with the novel’s first-person, present-tense point of view, this style can make it hard at times to find purchase amid Marina’s meandering thoughts.


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