Cantoras

Last summer is when I first heard about Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis. The paperback had just been published, though the hardcover had come out in September 2019. I was immediately interested in reading it. Not only am I constantly on the hunt for books set in South America (partially because my husband is from Peru), I also liked the title, which means “singers” in Spanish. Specifically, female singers. I love music and singing (and novels about both), and I’d never read a book set in Uruguay, so I was sold.

Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis
AudienceAdult
GenreHistorical Fiction
SettingUruguay
Number of Pages312
Format I ReadHardcover
Original Publication DateSeptember 3, 2019

Official Summary

From the highly acclaimed, award-winning author of The Gods of Tango, a revolutionary new novel about five wildly different women who, in the midst of the Uruguayan dictatorship, find one another as lovers, friends, and ultimately, family.

In 1977 Uruguay, a military government crushed political dissent with ruthless force. In this environment, where the everyday rights of people are under attack, homosexuality is a dangerous transgression to be punished. And yet Romina, Flaca, Anita “La Venus,” Paz, and Malena–five cantoras, women who “sing”–somehow, miraculously, find one another. Together, they discover an isolated, nearly uninhabited cape, Cabo Polonio, which they claim as their secret sanctuary. Over the next thirty-five years, their lives move back and forth between Cabo Polonio and Montevideo, the city they call home, as they return, sometimes together, sometimes in pairs, with lovers in tow, or alone. And throughout, again and again, the women will be tested–by their families, lovers, society, and one another–as they fight to live authentic lives.

A genre-defining novel and De Robertis’s masterpiece, Cantoras is a breathtaking portrait of queer love, community, forgotten history, and the strength of the human spirit. At once timeless and groundbreaking, Cantoras is a tale about the fire in all our souls and those who make it burn.

Review

In my intro, I mentioned my excitement at Cantoras being about singers. As such, I should probably address that misconception first: Despite the title, which does mean “(female) singers” in Spanish, that’s not what the term means for the women in this novel. Here, it’s actually slang for lesbians. I guess I should have paid more attention to the quotation marks around “sing” in the book’s summary! I mean, I knew it would be about lesbian and/or bisexual women, but I was surprised there would be little, if any, singing in this story. Oh well, no matter.

For the past month, I’ve been reading books set in South America, mostly working my way forward in time. In doing so, I was excited to discover how closely linked Cantoras is with the previous book I finished, Hades, Argentina by Daniel Loedel. Where Hades, Argentina was set in 1976, primarily in Buenos Aires, Cantoras takes place in neighboring Uruguay starting in 1977. Both Argentina and Uruguay were going through political turmoil, both in military dictatorships and seeing human rights violations, torture, and forced disappearances. Whereas Hades, Argentina dives into the hard political side of Argentina’s dictatorship in 1976, Cantoras offers a different angle. Here, we get to see how Uruguay’s dictatorship (or El Proceso – The Process) affected normal civilians, spanning a decade.

During this time, it was highly dangerous for anyone within the LGBTQ+ community. To have romantic or sexual relationships with someone of the same gender, or to behave in ways not fitting your perceived gender, were both significant risks. As such, many people were forced to hide their true identities and sexualities. In Cantoras, we follow five women who pursue romantic relationships with other women. Four of our main characters can be labeled lesbians, but one would better be described as bisexual. Sometimes we have romantic relationships between some of our main characters; sometimes they pursue relationships with other cantoras.

Throughout the novel, we see how these five women forge authentic lives for themselves in spite of the homophobic government. Some women hide their sexuality from their families, while other families are accepting. Some women face extreme hardships, whether for their sexuality or for their political ideals, while others get through the decade comparably unscathed.

One thing I loved about Cantoras is how different these five women are. At the beginning, all of them are in their twenties (except Paz, who is sixteen), and they each have unique personalities and goals. Romina is the most politically involved of the group, committed to ending the dictatorship and seeing Uruguay democratically elect a new leader. She has been kidnapped and tortured by the government, but despite her valid fears, her political ideals keep her pushing for change. A character that takes a lot longer for readers – and even her own friends – to get to know is Malena. She’s quiet, strong, and a complete enigma. We don’t learn her full story until late in the novel, but it’s perhaps the most impactful and heartbreaking one here.

Flaca and Paz are the two youngest ones, each a bit more free-spirited, promiscuous, and excited to create and fix things with their hands. They are the ones who really transform their Cabo Polonio home (“The Prow”) into a safe haven. The oldest of the group is Anita, nicknamed La Venus. She’s the only one who’s married to a man, but her growing interest in women is adding to the strain in her marriage. She may be the most directionless woman here, but she evolves beautifully with time.

Each of the women is distinct, making for a full and nuanced story. As the years pass, they grow and change, usually for the better, mistakes and tragedies notwithstanding. Despite their early and fiercely loyal connection to each other, we watch as they grow more distant and then close again, fostering a decades-long friendship.

Most of Cantoras is divided between Uruguay’s capital Montevideo and a small beach town some 165 miles away, Cabo Polonio. (Some scenes also take us to Argentina and Brazil, too.) Whereas Montevideo can be harsh and stifling, Cabo Polonio serves as a retreat away from the dangers, a place these five cantoras can be true to who they are without so much fear of being caught and tortured.

It’s a richly written story, though the writing style took me some getting used to. It felt a bit quirky and quixotic at first, but charming, too. Cantoras also wasn’t a fast read for me. For whatever reason, it felt like a book that needed more time to spread out, so it took me over a week to read it. Nonetheless, it’s an enjoyable, tender, and empowering novel.

Final Thoughts

Cantoras is a lovely book that brings to light a piece of Uruguay’s history and how five women forged their own paths despite the challenges they faced. I’m excited to read more from Carolina De Robertis – especially The Gods of Tango, which is out now. She also has a new book arriving later this year, The President and the Frog, which I’m interested in reading. Look out for my reviews of her other books soon.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

About the Author

Photo credit: Lori Eanes

A writer of Uruguayan origins, Carolina De Robertis is the author of the novels The President and the Frog, forthcoming in August 2021; Cantoras, winner of a Stonewall Book Award and a Reading Women Award, a finalist for the Kirkus Prize and a Lambda Literary Award, and a New York Times Editors’ Choice; The Gods of Tango, winner of a Stonewall Book Award; Perla; and the international bestseller The Invisible Mountain, which received Italy’s Rhegium Julii Prize. Her books have been translated into seventeen languages and have received numerous other honors, including a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

De Robertis is also an award-winning translator of Latin American and Spanish literature, and editor of the anthology Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent in Dangerous Times. In 2017, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts named De Robertis on its 100 List of “people, organizations, and movements that are shaping the future of culture.” She teaches at San Francisco State University, and lives in Oakland, California, with her wife and two children.

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