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The past returns in Guadalupe Nettel's 'The Body Where I Was Born'

The past returns in Guadalupe Nettel's 'The Body Where I Was Born'
Guadalupe Nettel, author of the book "The Body Where I Was Born." (Lisbeth Salas / Seven Stories Press)

In Mexican writer Guadalupe Nettel's autobiographical novel "The Body Where I Was Born," a woman recalls her unconventional childhood through a series of stories about her life told to a silent listener, Dr. Sazlsvski.

Born with a birthmark on her cornea, the narrator has to wear a patch over her eye as a girl and doesn't see well. She has a controlling grandmother and a well-meaning but selfish mother, who nicknames her "cucaracha" — cockroach — for her habit of curling into herself. Abandoned first by her father, second by her mother and then by a mysterious friend who dies in a fire, the narrator begins to identify as an insect herself. In hallucinations and encounters connected to bugs, she defines her own existence as both a survivor and a human grotesque.

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"The Body" follows the girl through her parents' open marriage and divorce; through her life in Mexico City and then Aix-en-Provence, France; through her various friendships and encounters with people who do not see her or try to know her well. Hers is a story of isolation, often self-imposed; unable to understand the world around her, she buries herself in books.

The present-tense version of Nettel's narrator is never developed; "The Body" is told as a series of disconnected stories from the narrator's past. Is this deliberate obfuscation of the present central to the narrator's idea of how she defines her adult self? If so, a piece is missing that would orient the reader. Nettel hints that she wants to blur what is real. "Perhaps when I finally finish [telling my story]," the narrator says, "for my parents and brother this book will be nothing but a string of lies. I take comfort in thinking that objectivity is always subjective."

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The Body Where I Was Born

Guadalupe Nettel, translated from the Spanish by J.T. Lichtenstein
Seven Stories: 208 pp., $22.95

Partington is a writer in Elk Grove, Calif.

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