England vs. Colombia [Women's World Cup of Literature: First Round]

This match was judged by Rhea Lyons, a scout at Franklin & Seigal.

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Judging this match up between Life After Life and Delirium was particularly difficult. I loved both novels for wildly different reasons, and struggled to find even loosely define parameters within which i could work to compare the two. In the end, it just came down to heart, which seems appropriate (you know, sports!).

Life After Life begins over and over again on a snowy day in February, 1910, as Ursula is born, the youngest daughter of a British family living just outside of London. Each time Ursula is reincarnated she makes it a little bit further in life, paying closer attention to the uneasy sense of deja vu that overcomes her just before she encounters the thing that lead to her demise the last time. She survives the influenza outbreak in 1918 by pushing her maid down the stairs, preventing her from returning from London and infecting the family. She survives getting raped—which leads to an unwanted pregnancy and being beaten to death by an abusive husband—by instead punching the young offender in the mouth when he tries to kiss her for the first time. The more lives she lives, the stronger her deja vu becomes, until she begins to realize that there is power in her knowledge of what’s to come. She ultimately tries to assassinate Adolf Hitler to try and prevent World War II, a scene which opens the novel and makes you wonder throughout the read which iteration of Ursula’s life will take her to this climactic moment.

Although this novel is set against two world wars, it’s not a novel that speculates how history would have been changed if Hitler might never have existed. Instead, the novel shows how important your own life is to you, and to your family (and yes, the world too, but to a much smaller degree). It gives importance to that subset of feelings that we so often try to simply brush aside—that sometimes unshakable desire to revisit the shoulda woulda couldas that can drive you nuts—and at once encourages you to daydream how your life might be different. In doing so, it reassures you that if you’ve gotten this far, you’ve already been victorious over death in countless ways you probably didn’t even realize.

This novel is also wonderfully crafted. Each time Ursula is born anew certain other key details have shifted, and although the supporting characters are all warped accordingly they are still immediately recognizable. It goes without saying that few talented writers can pull this off so flawlessly. I loved the writing, I loved the subject matter, I loved spending time with the characters. This novel left my head in the clouds, imagining how my life could be different, if I’d ever want it to be, what my true place in the cosmos is, and what really is happiness, anyway?

The competition, Delirium, takes place in Bogota in the 1980’s. It follows Aguilar, an ex-professor of literature who now sells Purina dog chow, who returns from a weekend away to find that his wife, Augustina, has suffered a mental breakdown in a hotel somewhere. The novel is told from four different perspectives—Aguilar, Augustina, her ex-lover/cartel money launderer Midas, and Augustina’s grandparents, whose POV is written in third person. Aguilar teams up with Anita, a tough, no-nonsense maid from the hotel where Augustina is found, to find out why Augustina was at the hotel and who she was with. At the same time, Augustina’s long-estranged Aunt Sofi appears and fills Aguilar in to Augustina’s tumultuous upbringing, her ability to see into the future, and how she would stop at nothing to protect her brother Bichi from being brutally beaten by her father (which happened often). Aunt Sofi also reveals the event that ultimately split their family apart and shattered Augustina’s mental health.

My experience reading Delirium was much more grounded than Life After Life. The driving force of the novel is trying to make sense of Augustina’s madness, and she can easily be interpreted as a metaphor for Colombia’s own deeply fractured self at the time, under the control of the cartel. But, it’s so much more than that— it’s about family, loyalty, love and heartbreak (I teared up when the narrator encounters his ex wife and her sons and realizes that she still has all of his clothing hanging neatly in their closet) and at the same time completely laugh-out-loud goofy (the impetus for Midas’s narrative is figuring out how to get his recently paralyzed friend to have an erection, basically). The reading experience can be slightly disorienting at times because it switches between narrators without any clear indication, and often Augustina refers to herself in the third person. Natasha Wimmer’s translation is excellent, though, and once you get a feel for each character’s voice it’s clear enough (and fun to figure out who is talking). I also personally love reading anything featuring a woman on the verge, and I think there’s something deeper to be said about our fascination with the mentally unstable female . . . but that’s an essay for another time. Maybe.

How do two wildly different yet equally supreme novels compete? By boiling them down to cheesy soccer metaphors, of course. Since there are no draws in this round, I choose Delirium as the winner, due to it’s streamlined complexity and ability to incorporate cheerful relief into an otherwise serious storyline. It made me laugh more often. Life After Life is gorgeously written, but it’s pretty bleak up until the very end.

This match ends tied 2-2 as both novels trade gracefully executed points, but Delirium pulls through with a final merciless goal in stoppage time.

Final score: Delirium – 3, Life After Life – 2.


Next up, Colombia’s Delirium will face off against Mexico’s Texas: The Great Theft on Saturday, June 27th.

Tomorrow’s match will be judged by Meredith Miller, and features Brazil’s Crow Blue by Adriana Lisboa up against Costa Rica’s Assault on Paradise by Tatiana Lobo.

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