Named one of the ten best fiction books of 2018 by the New York Times en Español, Cockfight is the debut work by Ecuadorian writer and journalist María Fernanda Ampuero.
In lucid and compelling prose, Ampuero sheds light on the hidden aspects of the home: the grotesque realities of family, coming of age, religion, and class struggle. A family’s maids witness a horrible cycle of abuse, a girl is auctioned off by a gang of criminals, and two sisters find themselves at the mercy of their spiteful brother. With violence masquerading as love, characters spend their lives trapped re-enacting their past traumas.
Heralding a brutal and singular new voice, Cockfight explores the power of the home to both create and destroy those within it.
Many thanks, as always, to Jordan Taylor-Jones at Influx Press for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
You only have to glance at the blurb for Cockfight to know that this is a hard-hitting book. Violence, abuse, incest, the destruction of innocence, and the deadly cycle of trauma are the coiled springs that lie like traps within each of the thirteen stories. When it comes to fiction, as some of you know, I am not afraid of the dark, and I certainly do not regret plunging myself into the bloody, visceral, often grotesque world that Ampuero lays bare in these stories.
From the very first story, ‘Auction,’ in which a young girl is kidnapped by a gang, the author takes us on a terrifying, unflinching journey through some horrific experiences. But there is far more here than shocking spectacle: Ampuero is an incredibly skilled writer, her language restrained and unadorned in a way that is suggestive of her journalistic background, and her insights into human nature are profound and sometimes dazzling. ‘Nam,’ one of the most affecting stories for me, brings the horrors of war into the domestic space in an incredibly complex and brilliant way. There are so many levels at play in this story in particular, from the narrator’s confusing feelings towards her friend, to the spectre of her own father and the unspoken trauma she carries within herself. ‘Pups,’ while also a disturbing story, contains within it some aching truths about the difficulty of going home again, and there is a limd of weird beauty in among the deeply unsettling events.
Two of the stories, ‘Passion’ and ‘Mourning,’ stand apart as more apocryphal, taking biblical figures and carving a new narrative that places women firmly at the centre, pain, suffering, magic, and all. I liked this change of mode; it seems to offer a glimpse of just how staggeringly far-reaching the author’s vision and talent is. Then Ampuero returns us to a more modern domestic space: in ‘Ali,’ the cyclical, inescapable nature of trauma is tragically detailed, as we watch Miss Ali’s descent alongside her household. And ‘Coro’ is a flaying indictment of the ways in which women can tear each other down – it is probably the most powerful story on this theme I have ever read.
These stories are so fresh and yet so dark, somehow simultaneously rotten to the core and coruscating with bright truths. They are stunning in the most literal sense of the word: after reading each story, I felt as if I had been thumped around the head with cruel, twisted realities and, dazed and blinking, I had to take a break and recover before I was ready to read another. And yet these immensely powerful stories are completely worth the emotional pummelling: they are fiercely, brilliantly original, taking thought and language to places most writers would not dare to go. I would also be intrigued to read these in Spanish (which I speak, or at least used to!); I sense that Frances Riddle’s translation has absolutely captured the precise, unflinching, utterly compelling prose of the original. It reads flawlessly in English, and I could hear the echo of how it might have been expressed in Spanish.
I would definitely read more of Ampuero’s work. I have never read anything quite like it before.
Cockfight by María Fernanda Ampuero, translated from the Spanish by Frances Riddle, is published by Influx Press and is available to purchase directly from the publishers here.