Let me begin by stating that reading this book had the same effect on me as visiting places like ESMA (the oft-mentioned clandestine detention center in the novel) or similar memory sites in Chile (which, like Argentina, also suffered under a bloody military dictatorship), such as Villa Grimaldi. I was left with the same emotions that I carried whenever I visited those places, meaning that oftentimes, while reading this book, I would have to take a break, get something to drink, go walk around, etc., because everything about it was just *too much.*
Let me also say that, until now, no book has ever made me break out in sobs in the middle of reading it.
Anyway, PERLA was positively phenomenal and far exceeded the already very high expectations that I had for it (I was already huge fan of de Robertis' debut THE INVISIBLE MOUNTAIN). When I saw that de Robertis was writing a novel about the desaparecidos (the disappeared) of Argentina, I started counting down the days until its release. The phenomenon of the extreme right-wing Cold War-era dictatorships in the Southern Cone (including the dictatorship in Argentina - the "National Reorganization Process") is a subject I've studied for years and, for the longest time, I've been thirsting for a truly excellent English-language novel about this subject. PERLA is it, and far more.
I won't rehash the plot, because that's what the book blurb is for (I also don't want to give away any spoilers, but if you are in any way familiar with the history of the Dirty War, you'll catch onto what Perla's "secret" is very early into the book). Instead I'll list some of the main things I loved about this book. Firstly, everyone was so real (character-wise). There were no cardboard cutouts representing particular viewpoints (when in cases like this, is really easy to do), whether that be the former Naval officer and his wife or the left-wing journalist boyfriend. Rather everyone, no matter who they are, was instead a fleshed-out human being, with both good and bad qualities. On this same note, de Robertis' portrayal of Perla's inner struggle is done very well and in a very realistic fashion.
Another thing I will commend de Robertis on is her portrayal of the oftentimes gut-wrenching scenes from the "mysterious houseguest's" point of view. I believe there is a fine line between staying true to what is historically accurate (and some extremely brutal things definitely happened to people who were made to disappear in Argentina) and gore and torture for the sake of gore and torture (aka "torture porn"). De Robertis, unlike many people, succeeded. I felt these scenes conveyed the true nature of the brutality during that era (as in, they did not soften it to make it more palatable to readers), but at the same time, I felt that she wrote these scenes in a respectful way that didn't want to include violence and gore for, well, the sake of violence and gore. This speaks very strongly of de Robertis' ability as a writer, because only very talented writers can pull this off, I believe. That being said, they were still extremely painful and difficult to read, even for me (and I've read tons of pretty graphic survivors testimonies from this time).
Lastly, I will say that it was so refreshing to read a book on this subject by someone who obviously knows the city of Buenos Aires and this particular period of Argentina's history. Too often, when I read novels about this subject, it is painfully apparent that the author has just skimmed the Wikipedia page on the Dirty War and has relied too heavily on the phenomenon of a repressive government disappearing people (which happened before the National Reorganization Process and continues to happen to this day, i.e. it is not something unique to Argentina) to fuel their story. I applaud de Robertis for her incredible and 110% accurate descriptions of Buenos Aires (I've spent a somewhat significant amount of time there and can attest to practically everything she says). I also loved, loved, LOVED how she included cultural tidbits of the time as well (i.e. she talks about Sui Generis, a popular Simon and Garfunkel-esque band in Argentina during the 1970s), which really shows that she knows what she's talking about.
- I loved the use of water as a reoccurring motif, the fact that the spirit was of the water and the water accompanied him wherever he went. I also loved how the "mysterious houseguest" was consistently thirsty (because one of the side effects of the electric shocks that were used as torture was extreme thirst - only you couldn't drink anything or else your insides would explode) and always wanted Perla to "feed" him water.
- The structure. It is non-linear, but I was absolutely in love with it and felt that it worked well for the story. The structure was actually one of my favorite parts of this book, because it kept you wanting to read, even if, like me, you'd already guessed the "secret" early on.
- At first I had trouble following the narrative as it shifted from Perla's POV to the spirit's POV, but it became easier the more I got engrossed in the story. It wasn't a problem at all after 2-3 chapters or so.