‘Empty Houses’ Asks When a Home Becomes a Home

Brenda Navarro’s Empty Houses, a propulsive tale of love and loss that began as an online sensation in 2018, was released in English by Daunt Books in February. First published in the Mexican feminist magazine Kaja Negra and then released in book form by independent publisher Sexto Piso, Navarro’s narrative has now been translated by Sophie Hughes and is ready to take the English reading world by storm.

Empty Houses is a book about love and grief like none you have ever encountered, at once a dialectic on motherhood and a modern-day fairytale, it traps the reader in the space between two narrators: the woman with the two fair kids and the lady with the red umbrella. From the opening line, the story rolls out in a deceptively simple manner. “Daniel disappeared three months, two days, and eight hours after his birthday. He was three. He was my son.” Thus begins the narrative of The Woman with Two Fair Kids. Thirty pages later, the narrative flips and we hear from The Lady with the Red Umbrella. “Leonel should never have come into our lives. He should have started wailing at the top of his lungs when he was supposed to, not later, once we’d already gone.” The kidnapping/disappearance of Leonel/Daniel serves as the structure for Empty Houses but the story belongs to The Woman and The Lady — both unnamed, both living in Mexico City, one well off, one struggling to pay rent by selling cakes and lollipops to people like The Woman with Two Fair Kids (I have created these monikers out of descriptions of the characters in order to differentiate them within this review, in the text they are unnamed).

Both narratives are told in close first person, in inescapable, tightly squeezed confessions that are as addictive and compulsively readable as they are claustrophobic. As the days pass and both women struggle with Daniel/Leonel, one with his loss and the other with his presence, a ravenous question emerges: what is motherhood? A burden, blessing, curse, cure, miracle, mistake, mystery, sentence, destiny. The sum total of these contrasting answers is visible only to the reader. These women do not communicate with one another so that the dialectic, not only of motherhood but also of the value of a woman’s body and the question of “when does a home become a home, and what makes one,” plays out across the divide, the two sides legible only to the reader.

In addition to this dialectic, one of the most compelling aspects of Empty Houses is the fairytale flavor that subsumes it. Perhaps motherhood itself is the oldest fairytale of all, it contains all of the elements: bodily transfiguration, suspension of disbelief, conflict, destruction, (re)birth, cautionary causation, bewildering familiarity, and normalized magic. Navarro’s novel, while firmly grounded in modern Mexico, plays with and borrows from many of these timeless narrative techniques. Like the characters in nearly all fairytales, the women in Empty Houses have no names and the events occur in a way that feels nearly preordained.

The Lady with the Red Umbrella’s first sighting of Daniel/Leonel has a mystical, hushed reverence to it. The Lady has come to deliver chocolate lollipops and candies to an upscale children’s birthday party in a “huge house surrounded by forest.” She is led as far as the swimming pool and then told to wait in order to be paid. She stands there, Cinderella-like, painfully aware of her “old clothes” and “almost worn-through plastic shoes.” She knows however that she has power because it is her lollies that “are the ones their children are going to go wild for.” While she is waiting, she sees for the first time “the woman with two fair kids.” And one of the kids is Daniel/Leonel. Her reaction is physical — “I gulped. He was the most beautiful child I’d ever seen. His bright locks fell like teardrop crystals and his big eyes filled his entire face.” Like the vanishing boychild in the German fairytale “The Rosebud,” this boy’s beauty is astonishing and potentially deadly in its magnetism. The Lady with the Red Umbrella cannot stop herself. She must have him. She is just as certain of her need for him as his biological mother is uncertain.

Balance and repetition are central to Navarro’s storytelling power. Phrases build, repeat, store up emotion and crash down on the reader. Words uttered by one female narrator at the opening (where had Daniel gone? I want to know where he is) are transferred to the lips of the other female narrator at the close (Where’s Leonel? What have you done with him? What’s happened to him?) and the echo that results is tremendous, it reaches out to include not only these two women but all women who ever wished to be a mother, wished not to be a mother, wished to be a lover, wished to be left alone by their lover. The multilayered fairytalesque form of Empty Houses allows Navarro to tell a story that is much broader and deeper than just two women and one little boy. It is a scathing assessment of domestic violence and the ways that we treat women’s bodies, a critique of the hierarchies that place Europeans and European attributes above those of the “New World,” an unblinking appraisal of systemic class-based oppression, and a damning evaluation of the governmental complicity in the disappearance of thousands of Mexican citizens. Navarro manages all of this and more without ever being the slightest bit heavy handed. In a style that is as reminiscent of Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment as it is of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, her story is rooted in the pain of two particular women but it grows out from the nucleus in breathtakingly inclusive ways. Prepare to be stunned.

FICTION
Empty Houses
By Brenda Navarro
Translated by Sophie Hughes
Daunt Books
Published February 25, 2021