Review of ‘Cantoras’ by Carolina de Robertis, Audiobook narrated by the author
I admit that I had this lesbian historical fiction audiobook on my list to listen for a good while but I couldn’t find the right frame of mind to enjoy it. I knew it wasn’t an easy listening plus I’m not a fan of authors narrating a book as they normally aren’t professionally trained. I finally decided to give it a try and I’m really happy that I did.
‘Cantoras’ follows the story of five lesbian friends in Uruguay from the late 1970s for a period of over 35 years. These five women – “cantoras” (meaning singers but also the slang term for lesbians) – are united by a strong friendship starting in Montevideo (Uruguay’s capital) following to Cabo Polonio, an uninhabited cape located a few hours away. During that period the women will share love, heartbreak, sorrow, and small victories.
This book resonated with me deeply, the main reason is that these women’s stories could be my story too. Unlike the leads, I’m a generation younger and come from Argentina, but the cultural and historical differences stop there. Argentina and Uruguay could be compared to the US and Canada in terms of the same language, similar(ish) traditions, and a common border. Unfortunately, as many Latin American countries, they also shared a similar Twentieth Century history of failed democracy and military dictatorships. I could completely relate to the political climate that surrounded the protagonists, the reign of terror, the “sálvese quien pueda” (every man for himself), the torture, the disappearings, the homophobia. Dangerous times to come out of the closet.
Because I can relate so much with this story – I visited Montevideo and Cabo Polonio a few times and I even drink “yerba mate” every day as the mains do – it’s hard to see if a foreigner to this culture will viscerally understand the story as I did. There are a good amount of words in Spanish and lots of cultural references. Most of them seemed to be explained but I’m not sure. I can definitely relate to the feeling of terror during the military dictatorship, I could sense it in my parents, and I could feel it myself even as a little girl. What I cannot imagine is coming out during those dark times, I was lucky enough to discover my sexuality at the start of our democracy and even then it was hard enough.
Having said all this, and despite how much the reader can understand the cultural, historical, and language contexts, this novel talks to everyone on many levels that transcends the differences and finds a human common ground. Sexism, homophobia, and power abuse is an unfortunate human affliction and rivers of literature can give testimony of that. In that sense, this book rips your heart off, throws it on the ground and stomps on it. Several times. But humanity also has the unlimited ability to redeem itself through friendship, loyalty, and love. Depending on how you read this book you can find solace or despair. Or maybe a little bit of both. My experience was bittersweet but really worth it.
As I said above, I was a bit wary about the author reading her own work as I’ve found that authors usually cannot achieve the same level of excellence compared to professional narrators. I have to admit that this is not the case, Ms. De Robertis nailed this narration. I’m sure she did some kind of voice coaching because all the five characters’ voices are distinctive and her performance of the ample range of emotions is as good as any narrator’s. It’s also an advantage that she can pronounce the Spanish terms as they should sound, and even though she never lived in Uruguay, she sounds like a native.
Overall, an excellent audiobook that I won’t be forgetting any time soon. 5+ stars.