Book: Her Fingers
Author: Tamara Romero
Type of Book: Fiction, fantasy, novella
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It’s published as bizarro and I will consider it odd on that basis.
Availability: Published by Eraserhead in 2012, you can get a copy here:
Comments: Though this book is part of the New Bizarro Author Series, I consider it more fantasy than bizarro. Compared to the other books in this series, the story in this book is far more restrained, with content that would not be out of place on a fantasy/sci-fi shelf in a bricks and mortar bookstore.
I have to engage in full disclosure right out of the gate: I am not a big fan of the fantasy genre. I cannot explain why but there you are. This being fantasy means a lot of the details in this book were muddled to me, though I tried to read as carefully as possible, which was difficult because too much is crammed into this book. I think Romero’s tale, given the lushness of her prose, needs to be a full-length book because the story-building in this novella is rushed.
The story is about witches who have become persecuted and deals with the specific experiences of a witch called Misadora. Misadora has several other names in this book, and given that several other characters have several other names, I lost the thread of who was who several times, which makes it difficult to write a good plot synopsis. At any rate, a man called Volatile finds Misadora floating in a river after she is attacked. He takes her in and shelters her, though he has a lot of trepidation about Misadora that I cannot share because it would be a spoiler. He lives, I believe, amongst what are called the Treemothers, women whom, when called by the witches, ran into the forests and merged with trees. These Treemothers exude a sort of sap/jewel called Amalis and only women can touch it. Misadora was caught wearing an Amalis ring and had all the fingers on that hand cut off. Friends who also have several names help her out with a bionic hand. Misadora has to stand up against the ever increasing persecution of the witches and the soldiers who try to kill the Treemothers, but at the end is faced with a horrifying truth that changes everything she thought she knew.
If this description seems very vague, that’s because I often could not get a grip on what this book was about. That is why it would have been better had this novella been written into a longer novel. To have multiple characters with multiple names, all the world-building with the towns, the history of the witches and the families, the Treemothers, Misadora and Volatile, and to cram it all into a book under 60 pages, is too much for the reader. That’s no insult to Romero because even though I have to review the book in front of me, it’s no small compliment to say that a book needs to be longer so that the author has to room to fully show off her chops. As it stands, this book is a small wave of names and places that will wash over the reader without being understood unless the reader is willing to take notes to keep track of who is who, which names are towns and what exactly being a sleepwalker may indicate. Finally, when you factor in that this book is told from different character perspectives, characters whose names switch in the book, it’s all a bit too much.
But I have to think this book would have been a better read for me had it been edited properly. Romero originally wrote this book in Spanish and translated it into English. I am mono-lingual but I recall vividly the awkward sentences I came up with when I translated Cicero’s De Amicitia into English. Even though every person in my college Latin class was a native English speaker, we delivered sentences that belied fluency in any language. It wasn’t until class when we read our lines and smoothed them over with the help of the professor that Cicero’s text had any beauty. I cannot say this tendency to focus on the translation rather than the prose during the yeoman work of translation is what happened with Romero, because some of this book contains beautiful sentences. However, large chunks of the text lead me to believe that is exactly what happened.
Regardless of whether or not the beauty of the original story got lost in translation, it is the responsibility of the editor to make sure awkward sentences and strange turns of phrase are polished before they are printed. Though I am not a fan of fantasy, even I can see that this is an interesting novella and that with some work it could have been so much better. I’ve talked with a couple of people from Eraserhead and its imprints, and they explained that as a small press they just don’t have the budget for copy editors. I understand that to a point. I really do. And I sort of hate harping on this point. But even as I despise piling on a small press I still get annoyed because words matter. If they didn’t matter there would be no sense in publishing anything at all and since Romero’s book is definitely worth publishing, it is worth editing. I cannot put a number on the times that people have said to me that after one bizarro book they stopped reading because they just couldn’t take the misspelled words, bad grammar, and poor punctuation. I take books seriously and I take the small presses as seriously as I do big publishers. The day I stop bemoaning poor editing is the day I stop reading these books entirely.
I initially wrote out several examples of what is wrong with this book but ultimately decided not to publish them because the last thing I want to do is to seem cruel to a fledgling writer, especially one who does not deserve it. Writing a novella and then translating it into another language means that Romero has already done some heavy lifting. Moreover there are parts of this book that absolutely sing. The editing issues in this are not her fault. I will never tire of saying this – authors are the last people who should edit their works because repeated exposure to the text means they no longer can see the errors. It is especially hard when you are translating your own work from another language because I suspect at the end of it all Romero knew this book like the back of her hand. No one can see their own mistakes with that level of familiarity.
But even as I try to be restrained, I have to say the editing issues in this book are serious and affect the way readers enjoy the book. It’s uncomfortable when a town’s name is spelled differently in back-to-back sentences. There are some sentences with syntax so garbled I am unsure what Romero is trying to convey. Garbled syntax is a common problem with translations – that’s why translators need good editors. This novella is so riddled with comma and punctuation errors that I stopped making note of them around half-way through the book. Conversational punctuation is also pretty messy, with commas often placed outside of the quotation marks. There are several word substitutions, like “were” for “where,” “than” for “that.” Weird sentences like “I had almost never been to that area before,” stop registering about page 37, or at least that was when I stopped making notes of the problems.
This sucks. This sucks righteously because this book has such beautiful moments, places wherein you realize that this book, for all its rushed narrative, confusing names and poor editing, is actually a cut above much of the bizarro prose out there. In a way, it reminded me of Grace Krilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps, another jumbled novel wherein the reader was occasionally blinded by moments of literary brilliance. With all my complaints about the amount of story crammed into under 60 pages and the poor editing, Romero’s talent salvages gold from the wreckage and the beauty of her prose is why I found this book worth reading.
Here’s a sentence describing the bionic people in this book, the ones who helped Misadora get a new hand:
Steel sheets and ceramic ornaments became inseparable parts of their bodies, like sugar dissolved in water.
This sentence is perfect. Sugar and water are natural things, and combined together they are still natural. When human beings take on steel and ceramic, it is a combination of the biological and non-biological, yet together they clearly make something as fluid and natural as sugar water. This book is full of revelatory sentences like this that show a deft cleverness.
Here’s another amazing passage about the bionic people:
The bionics wanted to reach what they called the eternal wakefulness: find the way to completely replace their human body, decrepit, decaying and mortal and, piece by piece, lock their soul up in their steel armor for eternity
Yes, it should be “replace their human bodies” and “lock up their souls” but so evocative is the image of these people, fighting the human condition of aging and death while showing the defensive nature they had to assume in Romero’s world, one can overlook those small problems.
Take this deeply affecting passage, wherein Misadora is under attack:
I saw another lightning bolt through the treetops, but the roar of thunder that necessarily followed merged completely with my own rampant howl of fear. I couldn’t tell the two apart. I saw the blade of the axe come down from the sky to my hand. The fear was thunder. The pain was lightning. I felt little. I could see a trickle of blood began to merge with the grooves in the trunk.
Yes, it should be “begin to merge” but this passage is not only stunning visually and aurally, but while Romero is showing Misadora lose her hand, she is also showing us the plight of the Treemothers as blood merges into the bark of the tree. It also is an excellent method of foreshadowing what is really going on with the Treemothers, a menacing secret that devastates Misadora.
While this book is probably the least humorous bizarro book I have ever read, Romero does display moments of humor. Here’s a scene wherein Misadora sees through a good cop-bad cop routine:
The GOOD soldier’s voice had a tone of humanity that his colleague’s lacked. Even a voice inhibitor cannot hide true inner torment. He walked slowly to me, and touched the BAD soldier’s shoulder, subtly suggesting he fuck off.
One is left wondering how a soldier tells another to subtly fuck off and many funny ideas came into my head, most of them involving rude hand gestures.
This may seem like a bad review, and in many respects, this should be a one-star book. The editing errors and the Tolkien-length novel crammed into a novella alone should have made this book unreadable. But the strength of Romero’s prose redeems it. There are moments in this novel wherein her innate talent grabs hold of you and forces you to continue reading. She just needs a longer format and a copy-editor and her next book won’t have to be praised with so many caveats. I am unsure if you should buy this book but I can tell you that I do not regret reading it, for all its problems, and I want to read more of Romero in the future. Should you decide to take a chance on this book that somehow managed for the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts, do it soon. Like all authors in the New Bizarro Authors Series, Romero has a year in which to sell a certain number of copies in order to be offered a book contract.
Now for business! With all my themed weeks comes a giveaway. This time I am giving away a copy of each book I discuss this week OR I am giving away an Amazon gift card in the amount that the paper versions of these books would cost. All you have to do to enter the drawing is to leave me a comment on this entry. One comment on each discussion is an entry into the drawing. Leave a comment all five days and you will have five entries into the drawing. Only one comment per day counts as an entry but don’t let that prevent you from engaging in conversation about the books. For all the details of this contest, visit this entry. If you’ve read Her Fingers, I would love to know what you thought of it.