Review: Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro translated by Frances Riddle (2021)


From the ‘Hitchcock of the River Plate’ (Corriere della Sera) comes Piñeiro’s third novel, a unique tale that interveaves crime fiction with intimate tales of morality and search for individual freedom.

After Rita is found dead in the bell tower of the church she used to attend, the official investigation into the incident is quickly closed. Her sickly mother is the only person still determined to find the culprit. Chronicling a difficult journey across the suburbs of the city, an old debt and a revealing conversation, Elena Knows unravels the secrets of its characters and the hidden facets of authoritarianism and hypocrisy in our society.


Having absolutely loved Havana Year Zero earlier this year, I was very excited to read another offering from the brilliant Charco Press. Huge thanks to Carolina for sending me a proof copy of Elena Knows in exchange for an honest review.

I don’t read a lot of crime fiction, but whenever I do dip my toe in, I am reminded of just how expertly the best crime writers use plot. Although I wouldn’t categorise Elena Knows as a crime novel exactly, as Argentina’s top crime writer, Piñeiro certainly knows how to draw the reader into a mystery, and I was thoroughly engrossed in the story. What is so unusual about it is that the ‘detective’ figure is an elderly woman suffering from Parkinson’s disease. It is really refreshing to see a protagonist having to modify their investigations in order to accommodate their failing health – and there are some brilliant scenes of her painful progress to uncover the truth about her daughter’s death while managing her condition. It’s so cleverly done.

Elena is at the heart of this novel – she is its centre and its ‘voice’. Despite the third person narrative, the present tense and the lack of paragraphing gives the book an almost Woolfian stream-of-consciousness feel, and the three-act structure and haunting refrain of the title adds a theatrical element. There is something classical about it, even as it explores contemporary issues in Argentinian society.

This is a slim novel, and it didn’t take me long to read it, but it had an enormous emotional impact on me. So many themes are explored within its pages – the difficult mother-daughter relationship, the thorny issue of abortion in a Catholic country, self-knowledge, and the search for the ‘truth’ we want to find vs the real truth – there is so much packed in here, and yet all the threads are woven together seamlessly. It is both an intelligent book and a deeply moving one, and I highly recommend it. It’s another one I want to read in the original Spanish one day, though the translation, by Frances Riddle, is excellent.

Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro translated by Frances Riddle is published by Charco Press and is available to purchase here.


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