History Keeps Me Awake at Night by Christy Edwall review – Roberto Bolaño-inspired debut
On 26 September 2014, 43 male students were abducted in southwestern Mexico. The trainee teachers had commandeered several buses to travel to Mexico City to mark the anniversary of the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre. Initially it was alleged that the drug cartel Guerreros Unidos had killed them. Federal and state authorities have since been implicated in their murder.
Living in London, she uses Google to trace their movements and reads widely about their plight
Christy Edwall’s protagonist, South African-born Margit, is obsessed with the students’ disappearance and resolves to uncover what happened. Living in London, she uses Google to trace their movements and reads widely about their plight. She begins to learn Spanish.
We soon realise these are displacement activities for the absences in her life – direction, desire, a career. Many of her friends have successful jobs. Margit is yet to find her feet. An art history graduate, she has interned at Figura magazine, taken a journalism course at City and worked as a gallery assistant at Tate Modern. Now 27, her main employment is as a receptionist at an endoscopy clinic. Margit is married to Nat, an ambitious young barrister. They seem ill matched: “across the gulf of our upbringings, we made do: I mocked his upper-middle-class perch, and he teased my colonial vulgarity”.
Edwall is an admirer of the Chilean author Roberto Bolaño, and his presence is felt throughout the novel. In 2666, Bolaño described the dead bodies of young women, drawing on the unsolved femicides in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juárez. Echoing this, Margit tries to make sense of the mutilated corpse of one of the students: “His eyes gouged out and the skin flayed from the skull.” She considers it “Aztec cosplay: infernal graffiti declaring the unlashing of energies that couldn’t be called back… torturer’s art, the prelude to cannibalism.”
It’s an intelligent debut, occasionally weighed down by its themes and literary references. Margit is not particularly sympathetic and the sketchiness of several characters makes them instantly forgettable. Nevertheless, Edwall is a talented writer and I look forward to seeing what she does next.
• History Keeps Me Awake at Night by Christy Edwall is published by Granta (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply