Sunday, August 14, 2011

Desert Blood by Alicia Gaspar de Alba

Publisher:                   Arte Publico Press

The sad fact is that the stories that should receive the most coverage in the news often go practically ignored. Since 1993 an atrocity has been going on at the US-Mexican border that has left hundreds of women raped, mutilated and dead while very little has been done to solve the crimes and stop whoever is behind them. One uncomfortable accusation is that this situation has probably been ignored because the women have been predominantly Latino. This is the setting that Gaspar de Alba has chosen for her Lambda Award winning novel Desert Blood: The Juarez Murders.

Ivon Villa returns to her hometown El Paso to adopt a baby. She and her partner Brigit are ready to start a family and there are many young girls along the border who have children they cannot take care of. Coming home is difficult for Ivon because of strained family relations, but her cousin is a social worker who can expedite the process, so it seems ideal. While flying in, she reads a magazine article about the numbers of young women who are being killed but assumes it has nothing to do with her until Cecilia, the pregnant woman who was going to give them her baby, is hideously murdered just a few days short of giving birth and the baby is killed with her. Ivon is disturbed to discover that the authorities on both sides of the border are not just reluctant to solve the crime, but may be involved in helping to cover it up.

While she is trying to find evidence of what happened to Cecilia, Ivon's younger sister Irene is kidnapped and disappears in Mexico. From what she has already learned, Ivon knows that Irene must be found as soon as possible if she's to be found alive. When the Mexican and American police prove less than helpful, Ivon decides to find her sister herself. She finds herself confronting corrupt border officials, indifferent politicians, people on the lower ranks of society, the families and friends of the women who have already disappeared and members of her family who are divided in thinking that Ivon's lifestyle has caused this tragedy to fall on them. Ivon eventually discovers that trying to save her sister's life may cost her own.

Desert Blood tells a gripping story that is given more impact by knowing that it's based on true events. It builds at a pace that leaves the reader feeling the growing terror Ivon experiences as she faces the idea that she may find her sister too late. There is so much to this plot that it almost becomes one of the book's weaknesses. There are three stories that run at once – the disappearances of Irene and the other women, Ivon's quest to adopt a child and her relationship with her family over her lesbianism. The stories of the women would have been enough to make a complete book and the other two strains sometimes distract from that. That could actually be a plus though because the one story is so horrific that the reader needs some release time away from it. 

One irritating aspect of the book is that de Alba includes a lot of comments in Spanish. Given the setting of the book, it's appropriate, but there are no translations for those readers who do not speak the language and the impression is left that parts of the story are being missed or not understood. A glossary of some kind would have been helpful.

The compelling nature of this story makes it a book that should be read. This is not a typical work of lesbian fiction though. Anyone looking for a romance with steamy sex scenes won't find that here, but they will find an extremely well written novel and an issue that will move them to anger.

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