Elena Knows is a forceful, thought-provoking, unconventional crime novel where Claudia Piñeiro effectively explores a range of social concerns such as illness, caregiving, crippling bureaucracy and a woman’s choice regarding her body.
When the book opens, Elena, a woman in her sixties, is home alone waiting for the clock to strike ten. Elena suffers from Parkinson’s, a progressively devastating illness, characterized by loss of control over everyday movements.
And she wonders if Parkinson’s is masculine or feminine, because even though the name sounds masculine it’s still an illness, and an illness is something feminine. Just like a misfortune. Or a curse. And so she thinks she should address it as Herself, because when she thinks about it, she thinks ‘fucking whore illness.’ And a whore is a she, not a he. If Herself will excuse my language.
Elena is now entirely dependent on Levodopa, a drug routinely given to increase dopamine, a critical chemical in the body, a messenger of sorts that carries signals from the brain to the limbs.
And he said, an illness of the central nervous system that degrades, or mutates, or changes, or modifies the nerve cells in such a way that they stop producing dopamine. And then Elena learned that when her brain orders the feet to move, for example, the order only reaches her feet if the dopamine takes it there.
But that’s not the only matter troubling Elena. The real burden weighing heavy on her soul is the sudden, recent death of her daughter Rita. On a rainy afternoon, Rita was mysteriously and inexplicably found hanging from the bell tower in the local church. The police classify her death as suicide and close the case with no inclination to pursue the matter further.
But, Elena refuses to accept the police’s version. She’s convinced it is murder and pushes the inspector to do more, to interview potential suspects so that the true facts of Rita’s death can come to light. Because there is one aspect of her daughter’s personality that Elena knows could not have caused Rita to voluntarily visit this local place of worship. So terrified was Rita of being struck by lightning that she always chose to stay away from the church in stormy weather. And it was raining on that fateful day. That explains Elena’s conviction that Rita could not have possibly entered the bell tower (“it’s the town lightning rod”) of her own accord, someone clearly dragged her there and killed her.
The local police indulge her by meeting her regularly but don’t really take her seriously. Elena finds no solace in religion either especially since the priest insists that she put the matter to rest and move on.
When it dawns on her that there is now only one avenue left, Elena braces herself to locate Isabel, a woman Rita had “helped” twenty years ago but had lost touch since then. Elena’s mission is simple – she is hoping that by calling in an old debt, she gets the help required in catching Rita’s murderer. But given Elena’s illness, finding Isabel is a challenge akin to climbing a steep mountain. She would have to walk a few blocks to the station, ride the train, and after that either walk or taxi to Isabel’s home, hoping against hope that Isabel hasn’t relocated in all that time. It’s a game of chance; yet, Elena is resolved and feels herself equal to the task. Hence, she patiently waits for the clock to strike ten so that she can consume her next pill of the day giving her the fillip to embark on her arduous journey.
That’s the central premise of the story and I don’t want to reveal anything more. But as the novel progresses we are given a glimpse into the tenuous relationship between Elena and Rita, more colour on Rita’s belligerent personality and the crucial encounter between Rita and Isabel twenty years ago, an incident whose repercussions Elena will be compelled to deal with now. The chapters alternate between the present where Elena sets off on her journey, and the past which shines a light on the life she shared with Rita.
What makes Elena Knows so compelling is the richness of themes explored, a gamut of hard-hitting social issues. First of all, the book is an unflinching portrayal of a debilitating disease, a hard-edged look at the daily struggles of performing commonplace activities, and the loss of dignity that it involves. Among many things, the illness completely alters Elena’s perception of time, which is now not governed by the clock but pills that she has to take at hourly intervals. Once the effects of the pill wear off, Elena can’t move till she takes her next dose. Her neck perpetually droops and restricts her gaze to a certain height, and her mouth is always dribbling. She understandably resents being helpless but is painfully aware that she has no choice. And yet, does she still have the will to live on despite her failing body?
Then there is Rita, her daughter, a dominant force in the book, even if she is now dead. Elena and Rita share a love-hate relationship. Given that both women are headstrong, fights are a regular feature when they are together, frequently hurling cruel words at each other.
They repeated the same routine everyday. The walk, the whip cracks, the distance, and finally the silence. The words changed, the reasons behind the fights were different, but the cadence, the tone, the routine, never varied…
As Elena’s disease progresses, the burden of caring for her falls on Rita, who fights through her teeth to ensure health insurance covers her mother’s mounting medical bills. This aspect of the novel brings two critical problems to the fore – the challenges of caregiving and the tediousness of having to deal with seemingly insurmountable red tape. Both these issues highlight how lack of requisite support, both practical and emotional, can make it hard for the caregiver to cope, paving the way for anxiety and depression.
Piñeiro’s bio mentions that she is an active figure in the fight for legalization of abortion in Argentina, so it’s not surprising that she also addresses this topic head-on in the novel, how every woman has the right to make her own choice regarding her body and she employs Rita’s actions as a vehicle to explore this point. As readers are made privy to a slew of Rita’s eccentricities, we are told how she avoids walking past the midwife Olga’s house and always crosses the pavement when she approaches her place. Olga also performs abortions, a fact that Rita finds hard to digest. Rita is a woman driven by her own convictions with not much respect for other people’s choices. She has fixed ideas on moral code and behaviour and an unwelcome aggressiveness in pushing her views on others.
Roberto and Rita were united by their convictions more than anything else, that way they both had of stating the most broad, arbitrary, clichéd notions as absolute truths. Convictions about how another person should experience something they themselves had never experienced, how people should walk through life along the roads they’d walked down and the ones they hadn’t, issuing decrees about what should and shouldn’t be done.
Ultimately, both Elena and Rita are flawed, unlikeable characters (Rita, I thought, was even worse, particularly for being a busybody), but it’s hard not to feel sorry for their plight accentuated by the difficulties of Elena’s illness. As the novel hurtles towards its conclusion, Elena is forced to confront some hard truths and a possibly growing realization that her earlier opinions about many things might not hold much water. Can she bring herself to accept that at her age?
In a nutshell, Elena Knows is a riveting, tightly constructed novel that turns the crime genre on its head by providing social commentary on pressing issues that remain relevant even today. That she manages to do so by not being too preachy or sentimental only enhances the book’s power.