cover image Ornamental


Juan Cárdenas, trans. from the Spanish by Lizzie Davis. Coffee House, $16.95 trade paper (136p) ISBN 978-1-56689-580-4

A powerfully intoxicating drug is at the center of Cárdenas’s atmospheric, nightmarish English-language debut. Somewhere in Colombia, on an estate near a major city, a doctor observes the drug’s effects on four women “from the inferior classes.” In the process, he grows fascinated with a woman known as number 4, who is unique in her response to the drug—while numbers 1, 2, and 3 sleep or become sexually aroused, 4 speaks in “fantastically deformed discourses,” including an apparent memory of her mother, disfigured by plastic surgery, and a political speech involving “the Ministry of Destitution.” Meanwhile, the doctor’s relationship with his wife, a cocaine-addicted artist, stagnates while she prepares for a new show of her work. In spare and economical prose, Cárdenas sketches a highly stratified world, where drugs link high society and neighborhoods that are “a single crush of old houses and ruins.” Cárdenas is less interested in plot than juxtaposing the contradictory philosophies of the wealthy, elitist doctor; his artist wife, who believes in “the mysticism of grace”; and the intelligent and damaged Number 4, who insists on “the authentic grace of people like me, who outfit themselves in everyone else’s debris.” Still, the overall effect offers both thrills and chills. (June)