cover image The Promise

The Promise

Silvina Ocampo, trans. from the Spanish by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Powell. City Lights, $14.95 trade paper (114p) ISBN 978-0-87286-771-0

This haunting and vital final work from Ocampo (1903–1993), her only novel, is about a woman’s life flashing before her eyes when she’s stranded in the ocean. The nameless narrator has fallen off a ship, and as she floats, her mind takes over, presenting a flotilla of real and imagined memories about the people in her life in the form of a version of the book she promises herself she’ll finish . The book’s main thread is a woman, Irene, and a man, Leandro, with whom both Irene and the narrator get involved. But the fluid narrative also encompasses brief snapshots of a murder mystery, the narrator’s grandmother’s eye doctor (“In profile, his intent rabbit face was not as kind as it was head-on.”), her hairdresser, her ballerina neighbor, and the fruit vendor to whom her brother was attracted as a boy (“it was a fruit relationship, perhaps symbolizing sex”). The narrator’s potent, dynamic voice yields countless memorable lines and observations: “The only advantage of being a child is that time is doubly wide, like upholstery fabric”; “What is falling in love, anyway? Letting go of disgust, of fear, letting go of everything.” But the book’s true power is its depiction of the strength of the mind (“what I imagine becomes real, more real than reality”) and the necessity of storytelling, which for the narrator is literally staving off death: “I told stories to death so that it would spare my life.” Ocampo’s portrait of one woman’s interior life is forceful and full of hope. [em](Sept.) [/em]