Cecilia, a 50-something widow from Buenos Aires, is an independent and highly educated woman, a writer with a strong network of friends to support her. Why, then, has she allowed herself to be physically and mentally abused by her teenage son?
The Rainforest, by award-winning Latin American writer Alicia Steimberg, explores this conundrum with grace and sensitivity in fluid, almost languid prose that is divided into short, crisp chapters.
In the opening chapter we find Cecilia in an expensive convalescent spa in the Brazilian rainforest. Her stay, funded by a handful of unnamed generous friends, is designed to help her find solace and to come to terms with her familial problems.
Leaves and flowers brush my arms and my tears mingle with the raindrops that have begun to fall. I cry and feel better. I can’t see the sky, just the tops of the tall trees and a monkey swinging from a branch. What I wouldn’t give right now to be alone on a sultry afternoon, with a storm threatening, at the Buenos Aires Zoo, breathing in the scent of the animals by an algae-covered lake. I lie down on a bed of leaves at the foot of a colossal tree and fall asleep. When I awaken, I see that it’s grown dark enough to start back. When a little light filters through the branches, I realize I’m close to the clearing. Before leaving my solitude behind, I let out a scream that is like a howl.
Despite her obvious distress, Cecilia unexpectedly falls in love with a North American man, who is also staying at the spa and grappling with emotional issues similar to her own.
In a series of
flashbacks and fragmented memories we find out about Cecilia’s past, including
the untimely death of her second husband, Dardo, and then the distressing
outfall in which her already wayward teenage son, Frederico, becomes addicted
to drugs. Paralysed by her own grief, Cecilia lets Frederico run riot.
Eventually his inconsiderate and violent behaviour makes Cecilia so
uncomfortable in her own home that she is forced to seek refuge in hotels or
This break down in the relationship between mother and son plagues Cecilia, who feels she must shoulder the blame for his unacceptable behaviour. But at what point should she let go and get on with her own life? If you can't change the past, what do you do about the future? And if you are presented with a second chance of happiness should you take it?
While I enjoyed this book enormously -- the writing has a peculiarly comforting rhythm and a deep meditative quality to it -- I have to admit that I found some of Cecilia's behaviour and her inability to take control of situations frustrating.
The book also posed many unanswered questions: what happened to Cecilia's two older sons? Why had they not come to her assistance when she needed it? And why was she able to come and go from the spa as and when she felt like it when surely the whole point was to cut herself off until she was 'healed'?
Ultimately, though, this is a very mature, adult novel that explores themes of loss, redemption and the human desire to find our place in the world. And, if nothing else, The Rainforest, which is not really about the rainforest at all, says much about the sometimes-tortured relationships women have with husbands, sons and lovers. More, please.