Cover Image: Abyss


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It takes a particularly skilled author to capture and maintain a reader’s attention in a short novella. Both Jérôme Leroy’s Little Rebel and fellow countryman, Victor Jestin’s Heatwave were both small in size but packed a powerful punch. Columbian author Pilar Quintana, author of 2020’s Bitch, can be added to the list with her new 168 page novella.

Quintana tells a simple story with few events, but she infuses it with an atmosphere of tension and suspenseful anticipation. Her narrator is an eight-year-old girl, Claudia, who tries to make sense of the small world she lives in and the adults who inhabit it. The result is a raw and moving portrait of an unloved young girl.

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Written through the eyes of an 8-year-old girl, this novel explores the breakdown of a family and the effect on Claudia, that eight year old. Her perceptions bring to light how adult relationships affect children and the consequences. The descriptions of Colombia are beautifully written. Sensitive and poignant writing, recommended reading.

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Pilar Quintana’s brief novel won the renowned Alfaguara Award in 2021. It’s set in the Columbian city of Cali during the early 1980s, a place now notorious for its links to the Cali Cartel. At this point in its history, it was already known for drug-related violence. But Quintana’s narrative only provides glimpses of the city’s turmoil. Instead, her focus is on a middle-class family in crisis, although the suppressed violence of their situation often seems to mirror broader forms of violence in their society, particularly when it comes to women’s experiences.

The story’s told from the perspective of the family’s eight-year-old daughter Claudia, although numerous shifts in register suggest Claudia’s looking back at her past rather than recounting events as they occur. After her mother’s ill-fated affair, Claudia becomes a key witness to the slow breakdown of her parents’ marriage. A fracture that marks the beginning of her mother’s physical and mental disintegration. Quintana concentrates on Claudia’s feelings, her confusion, as she tries to interpret the adult world surrounding her. She also shares her mother’s name and, it’s hinted may eventually face the same predicaments.

Although there’s an abundance of striking imagery and some marvellous descriptive passages, especially those featuring Cali’s landscapes and nearby mountains, I found this quite an uneven, sometimes frustrating, piece. At times it reads more like an extended character sketch of a mother and daughter despite various gestures towards gothic mystery - primarily represented through a storyline that echoes aspects of Du Maurier’s Rebecca. There are awkward stretches of mundane dialogue, and although Quintana’s exploration of patriarchy and destructive gender roles has potential, I didn’t feel it lived up to its promise. Translated by Lisa Dillman.

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My thanks to World Editions for a review copy of this book via NetGalley

Abyss is a story of family, of marriage, adultery, estrangement and depression all told through the eyes of an eight-year-old child (like a Goodreads friend and fellow reviewer, I too was thing of What Masie Knew). Written in Spanish by Columbian author Pilar Quintana, the book is translated by Lisa Dillman. Claudia is an eight-year-old girl living with her parents, her namesake mother married to her much older father who runs a supermarket. There is also an older aunt, single and living close by whom the family visit often. Claudia’s father is a reserved man, absorbed in his work and rarely speaking much; her mother on the other hand is still young and pretty, usually staying engaged in reading magazines and interested in the lives of celebrities and movie stars, especially those whose deaths have been mysterious or involved suicide, and in her plants which have overtaken the house so much so that Claudia describes it as a jungle. Different though it is, their lives are carrying on like this, peacefully enough when her mother’s short-lived affair changes things, bringing an estrangement between her parents and sending her mother deep into depression. Other events take place which shake her out of it, and start to bring things to some semblance of normalcy but her mother’s depression never really goes away. Amidst all this Claudia increasingly fears for her parents and by extension herself, always plagued by the fear that she might lose them.

Abyss gives us a rather complex set of characters; Claudia’s father, with a dysfunctional and neglected childhood, the burdens of which he still likely carries; he is running his supermarket successfully and falls in love with and marries a much younger woman. His anger at the affair and the resulting estrangement are not surprising, yet this event also triggers insecurities. He loves little Claudia and we see him taking her out for walks and to the zoo, but his nature means they don’t really communicate or connect. Claudia’s mother likewise comes with the scars of her past, having her wishes repeatedly denied, and then the affair and its consequences take additional toll; her near obsession with celebrity deaths, and of course all the plants too define her in a sense. The younger Claudia meanwhile also has much to bear—while she is loved by her parents and aunt, and lacks nothing in terms of material comforts, she has to face her father’s reticence, and the oscillating relationship which she shares with her mother—at times close, with her mother sharing her feelings and past, at other’s her mother almost checking out of life and withdrawing into her shell so much that nothing her daughter does, whether an achievement or genuine danger causes any reaction.

The book navigates these characters and their relationships as also the consequences on each of the affair—little Claudia, especially impacted by the stories of death her mother is obsessed with leading to a fear of those she loves being snatched by the abyss that seems to be around them in many forms.

I thought this a nicely done book capturing a young girl living in a world more or less defined by the problems and complications of adult life, and at the same time trying to find connection to parents who are both difficult—one too reserved, the other at times so absent that she doesn’t care what is happening. And they both share their problems with little Claudia, she having to take on their pains and troubles along with her own. Eventually in the book though, it is the mother–daughter relationship which is more in focus, and while that was done well, I felt with the backstory of the father also explored, perhaps the father–daughter relationship too needed more attention.

Still a good read all the same.

3.5 stars.

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This is a captivating, atmospheric novel set in Cali, Colombia, at an unspecified time, but likely to be the 1980s (I think). Claudia is an only child living with her parents (mother: a lazy woman who has few maternal feelings and lies around reading gossip magazines all day; father: a busy supermarket manager). The apartment is full of plants, much loved by mother, although these add to the creepiness of the home. Claudia essentially wants attention and love, but her mother won’t give her this and her father is too busy.

The motif of an ‘abyss’ is recurrent - the looking down on the plants from the height of the stairs, the alleged ‘fall’ of family friend Gloria Ines, tia’s failed marriage to Gonzalo, Claudia’s obsession with Natalie Wood, Karen Carpenter and Rebeca, the latter who plunged into a ravine outside of the city and whose bones are discovered years later.

I really enjoyed this read. It accomplishes a lot in a short novel, and perhaps leaves a few dead-ends (at times, I felt I was waiting for a significant climax which doesn’t arrive). Ultimately, it’s Claudia who is the victim her, a young girl whose childhood is not what it should be due to a number of factors.

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3.5 stars
I really did find this novel enjoyable despite is being outside of my usual genre. The author created a beautiful and stark narrative from the perspective of a young girl whose family was being broken apart.

The themes of nature and the ‘abyss’ were explored in detail throughout the novel and really added depth to the story. I also thought that depression was portrayed movingly in the story, especially as it was through the eyes of a child.

Although Abyss did open my eyes to the fact that adults often underestimate the insight and understanding that children have in difficult situations, I did feel as though there was something missing. The ending was very abrupt to me although the plot was strong- perhaps something which could have been executed better.

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This book was poignant and emotional. So many moments I had to pause to take in what I was reading. You rarely get a book from a child's perspective, especially with so many dark themes. Claudia witnesses so much without truly comprehending what is going on but she feels it all. As adults I think we take for granted that a child can take in the negative energy without understanding in full what is happening around them. I wanted more at the end...I wanted to know if she was going to be ok...unfortunately this book ends too abruptly for me. Maybe it was meant to leave us hanging but I wish there was more.

Trigger/content warnings:
Adultry, emotional abuse, neglect, depression, suicide, death

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Growing up in the Caribbean, many children are chastised for putting their noses and moths where they don't belong. "Come out a big people business!" is a popular refrain. Some kids either don't care or don't listen, while others become quiet, being so still as to be forgotten and in so doing are able to hear and see far more than they are meant to. This can be both detrimental and educational and can also leave scars or teach lessons.

I rather think that for Claudia it is the lesson she learns. Because with a keen perception, she is able to observe the changes within her parents' marriage brought on by silence, avoidance, jealousy, adultery, and depression. And is able to convey it to the reader with an honest clarity. The prose is presice and propulsive, making this a snappy novel to ingest.

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This book allowed me to see how fascinating a child’s observation could be. Claudia surely a smart and sensitive 8-years old girl and she has all this innocent thought process that allowed us to learn to feel what she feels toward her observation of her parents and their family. How complicated they seemed to her yet she was curious and needy of answers. Her emotions affected significantly by what she learned from her parents’ marriage breakdown (mainly from her mother’s mental ups and downs).

The translation was great and it can capture the raw emotions of our child main character and I think it’s originally rich and that’s why its beauty continued smoothly in the translation.

Thanks to Netgalley and publisher World Editions for the e-ARC

My personal rating: 3.5/5

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I really enjoyed this book. Shown from the perspective of an 8-year-old child, this novels centres on her mother’s declining mental health issues and the child’s unravelling familial set-up. At times innocent and playful, but always veering dangerously towards the edge of the abyss, it was interesting how perceptive the child was to the chaos in her home life and how it was affecting her close family members. A short but incredibly powerful read.
Thank you NetGalley and the publisher for my advanced copy of this book to read.

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I really liked this book. Pilar Quintana has done an incredible job of building a tense atmosphere and a narrative that plays with the layers of meaning behind 'Abyss'. I will definitely be checking out their other novels too.

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Abyss was a very pretty but melancholy story. Told from the perspective of 8 year old Claudia as she starts to learn about mortality and the fact that her parents are very human and make many mistakes. We are watching Claudia's family through her eyes and seeing how much children take in even when they seem like they're not paying attention. The story to me felt very true to how felt about things as a child. This was my first Pilar Quintana book, but it won't be the last. Thanks to Netgalley and World Editions for the advanced copy.

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What a wonderful, and very moving, book. I spent a lot of it wanting to wrap Claudia in a big hug and protect her from the adult world!
Ms Quintana has managed to capture the sense of confusion and fear many girls feel at that age when adults whisper and half truths become reality in one's mind.
Praise must also be given to the translator who made the book a pleasure to read in English
Thank you to netgalley and world editions for an advance copy of this book

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I liked the tense family relationships in this one and the use of a child narrator was effective and believable, which is rare. Claudia is at times intelligent and perceptive beyond her years, but then her impulsive behaviour and the intensity of her desires - for tennis shoes or ice cream - grounds her in the experiences of childhood, the powerlessness and irrationality. I simply wanted more tension and unease. It took its time getting anywhere and in a novella every page matters. The slow start somewhat blunted the impact. The prose was fairly spare, which I don’t typically love. I simply wanted more of everything - description, characters, creepiness.

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Eight-year-old Claudia is perceptive and curious. The only child of a mother who is beautiful but unhappy, married to a man twice her age. Claudia’s mother is careless with her worlds, saying things that are hurtful and that young ears are not yet prepared to know. As her mother’s morbid curiosity becomes an obsession and depression grips her, and her father turns inward and silent, Claudia will begin to see an abyss at every turn.

As this story unfolds, there are times when the pacing hits descriptive bogs, but overall this author does a nice job maintaining tension, even during the quotidian scenes such as at breakfast. In some scenes, the narrative has a spectral feel, particularly in the mountains where the author makes good use of place with fog and dangerous terrain. The issues that made this a less satisfying read include unresolved plot threads and the abrupt ending.

Thank you to World Editions and NetGalley for providing this ARC.

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This stunning short novel set in Cali, Columbia, was originally published in 2021 and won the prestigious Alfaguara Novel Prize. The translation by Lisa Dillman has a publish date of February 7th. The story presents the domestic life of a 1980s Colombian family from the perspective of eight-year-old Claudia whose sense of security is shaken when a new person is introduced to the family. A child of a younger, beautiful mother and a much older, work-focused father, Claudia struggles with loneliness and fears of abandonment.

The title in Spanish is Los abismos, and Claudia encounters several manifestations of the abyss that threaten to upset her world and potentially take her family from her. Through her eyes, the author and translator present a fully realized sense of setting, from the interior of her father’s supermarket to the lush vegetation and deep fog of the mountains, that serves as the backdrop for themes of abandonment, missed opportunities, loss, depression, beauty, privilege, and the meaning of family.

Thank you Netgalley and World Editions for this ARC.

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Although this book contained very heavy topics from the trauma that our main charcter Claudia dealt with,she managed to keep the book light and optimistic.I would look forward to see a sequel of her grown up.

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This feels like a retelling of What Maisie Knew by Henry James, but more modern, less wordy, and a lot less boring.

The child's first person point of view was an interesting way to go- if this had been written in third person, there would have been no one to empathize with at all. As it stands, Claudia's naive/mature beyond her years viewpoint is suspect, and I'm a sucker for an unreliable narrator.

The mother's depression was well described, especially from a child's view, and I really hope it was Claudia's take on some of Mother's extreme actions.

I liked the descriptions of the "jungle" of plants in the home, and the descriptions of place from a child's eye were refreshing. The time, though not defined, was the 80s in Colombia, and the politics were hinted at in some adult conversations and some of the actions, like going to the farm (probably not just for Mother's mental health.)

All in all, this was an interesting book, and I enjoyed this look into the mind of a child dealing with a workaholic father, depressed mother, and relatives who were, well, odd. It would be interesting to meet an adult Claudia now- though she may be a touch scary.

Thanks to NetGalley and World Editions for the ARC.

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very grateful as ever for getting an ARC of this novel.

large sections of this is beautifully written detail on depression and the way it impacts both yourself and those around you. I loved those sections. I also enjoyed the sections on gonzalo, though they were very different. and then there were some smaller sections that I'm unsure of the place of. this novel often drifted (and isn't majorly focused on its blurb) and so I felt a lack of connection to the story through that, though I continued to feel connected to the main character and was impressed that I could feel such connection to a child. overall, a really good book, though you have to be aware of going with the flow of it more than being able to dig in to one story or idea

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I was actually surprised to find out this was a short read.

It packed a powerful punch to give insight on this eight year old and the trauma she is going through.

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