wed 19/06/2024

Margarita García Robayo: Holiday Heart review – understated and acute | reviews, news & interviews

Margarita García Robayo: Holiday Heart review – understated and acute

Margarita García Robayo: Holiday Heart review – understated and acute

This subtle, lyrical novel surveys the end of love among other far-reaching themes

Colombian writer Margarita García Robayo was born in Cartagena and now lives in Buenos AiresAlejandra López

The epigraph chosen for Holiday Heart locates the book within the tense of an “afterwards”: not passion, but what follows, the wakeful lull and wide-eyed studying of another, in which scrutiny supplants desire: “Afterwards, when we have slept, paradise-comaed and woken, we lie a long time looking at each other.” It’s a poem by Sharon Olds called ‘The Knowing’, a title appropriate to Margarita García Robayo’s central characters, Lucía and Pablo, a married couple who have been together

for nineteen years, who are in their different ways difficult to like, and who are fully familiar with the other’s flaws. The intimacy of Olds’ image is by now alien to their relationship: both have committed infidelities, and the narrative never closes the geographic distance between them: Lucía with the twins in her parents’ holiday apartment in Miami, having taken off following Pablo’s most recent affair, and Pablo at home, recovering from the heart attack that was prompted by the excesses of that liaison. Even so, the book is very much an exercise in “looking at each other”, inspecting their path towards resentment and indifference, asking if all they have in common now, apart from the children, are “piles of accumulated dead time, which nobody has bothered to clear away.”

This is the title in the original Spanish: tiempo muerto, or “dead time”. It’s fitting given that almost nothing happens in the book: instead, the tugs of thought and memory build the momentum, flitting between the perspectives of Lucia and Pablo as well as between the past and present. Despite the lack of present-tense happenings, it’s these shifts that convincingly create the rhythm of a reckoning with their marriage in its end-days: memories intrude, both are preoccupied, and the tone is sour, mordantly funny, unforgiving rather than wistful, as Charlotte Coombe brilliantly captures the bite in García Robayo’s humour. The English title, for example: “holiday heart” sounds like it could be a summer fling, “a sentimental love song”, thinks Lucía. “A roadside motel with blinking neon lights.” Those lighthearted associations mock Pablo’s diagnosis with holiday heart syndrome: a serious illness, acquired through the prodigal consumption of alcohol, drugs and fatty foods:

My heart?’ Pablo didn’t understand what the doctor was explaining to him. ‘What’s wrong with my heart?’ Then he heard Lycia, from the other side: ‘It’s on holiday.’ She said it in the tone of someone stating the obvious: ‘You have a holiday heart.’ Was it a joke? She wasn’t laughing. Nobody was laughing.

This joke at the heart’s vulnerability, both materially and metaphorically, crops up repeatedly. Lucía reflects on her “lipid obsession”, how it’s the days when she lays out a feast of grease for her family that “she feels most loved”. She’s aware of the unhappy consequences of this: García Robayo implies the extent of her guilt with careful ellipses, the heart again doubling as an overloaded organ and a signifier of lovelessness: “She thinks it’s her fault. In one respect, it is her fault. Pablo’s heart. And everything else.” It’s a feeling Pablo understands: “Loving each other and looking after each other […] are not always the same thing.”

Holiday Heart by Margarita García Robayo translated by Charlotte Coombe

Such aphoristic wisdom is characteristic of the book’s probing interest in universal themes, which encompass not only love, but motherhood, belonging, identity, race, class and integration. Lucía and Pablo are both Colombian immigrants to the US: they’re educated, “reasonably well-off”, and quick to recognise other Latinos, fixating on their background in ways that are often uncomfortable. While they share a homeland, their attitudes towards it are sharply opposite. Pablo is haunted by home: he has been slowly but devotedly writing a novel about the Colombian island where he lived for part of his childhood: a testament to how he “missed the vertigo, the ordeal of the unattainable. The pot-holed streets, the raging wind, the dead fish on the seashore.” His family, apart from his aunt, all still live there. When the twins are born, it’s only the sister with a US visa who can visit.

Lucía, on the other hand, is adamant that “a homeland is something that moves with you”. She’s snobbish, standoffish, a graduate of the Yale World Fellows Program, and thinks that patriotism is “corny”: “Is anyone born with a flag tattooed on their neck?” “Whenever the children ask where she is from, Lucía tells them ‘From here, from our house.’” It’s a tension that García Robayo stages as crucial to their marriage: a question not only of affiliation, but also money and class. Lucía’s parents’ wealth climbs throughout her childhood, mirrored in their moves from Bogota to Caracas, Caracas to Mexico, and the Mexican countryside to the historic centre of Mexico City. She was “transplanted like a tree never given time to put down roots.” Her relationship with place is a condition of her background, as much as it is also a decision to distance herself.

While they have different approaches and conflicting opinions on many topics, both Pablo and Lucía share a tendency to construct their identities firmly in relation to racial categories. Forcing a confrontation with instances of racism as well as misogyny, García Robayo is unsparingly blunt in her depictions of her characters’ prejudices. The narrative voice cleaves closely to the perspectives of Lucía and Pablo; she does not pass comment.

In this way, Holiday Heart resists the attempt to take easy lessons from its portrait of two people becoming estranged from each other. It is understated, lyrical, and delivers its insights by means of acute observation, dealing confidently in the unsaid. “The accumulation of time makes strangers of us; nobody can say precisely when the seed is planted.” It’s a subtle, observant book interested in the ways in which we remain opaque to one another: we lie a long time looking at each other, and we do not find answers.



Jess Payn's perceptive analysis of characters and themes encouraged me to read 'Holiday Heart', which I enjoyed. Although the characterisation could have been more developed, I found Robayo's depiction of Latino culture and the attitudes of South American immigrants genuinely absorbing.

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