Book Review: Prayers for the Stolen, Jennifer Clement (2014)

January 26th, 2015 2:05 pm by Kelly Garbato

Poetry in Motion

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Blogging for Books. Trigger warning for rape.)

Now we make you ugly, my mother said. She whistled. Her mouth was so close she sprayed my neck with her whistle-spit. I could smell beer. In the mirror I watched her move that piece of charcoal across my face. It’s a nasty life, she whispered.

It’s my first memory. She held an old cracked mirror to my face. I must have been about five years old. The crack made my face look as if it had been broken into two pieces. The best thing you can be in Mexico is an ugly girl.

Ladydi Garcia Martínez lives on a remote mountain in Guerrero, Mexico. Her neighbors are the lizards, the snakes, the scorpions, the narco-traffickers – and women. Many women, though fewer than in years past. Women who dress their daughters in boy’s clothing; color their teeth yellow to mimic rot; wash the grime off their bodies only to get dirty again; and dig child-sized holes in the corn fields to hide their daughters from human traffickers.

Life wasn’t always life this. Once an entire community – men and women, young and old – lived on Ladydi’s mountainside. Long before she was born, the Sun Highway connecting Mexico City and nearby Acapulco was built, cleaving the village in half. Soon the men left in search of work, both in Mexico and across the border in the United States. Some returned for the occasional visit; many did not. Ladydi’s father falls into the second category. His philandering and eventual abandonment only compounded her mother’s bitterness and reliance on alcohol – a fact to which the beer bottle graveyard in their shed can attest.

Now a teenager, Ladydi recounts scenes and memories from her childhood in a series of sometimes only loosely connected stories (Part I): Paula’s abduction and mysterious reappearance a year later. The parade of volunteer teachers, sent to educate the nine girls on the mountainside, which changed from year to year and ranged from the arrogant to the unprepared and downright indifferent. The surgery to repair Maria’s harelip, for which she had to wait eight years before there was an opening at the clinic in Chilpancingo. Estefani’s mother’s struggle with AIDS, for which her husband blamed her (never mind that there were no men on the mountain for her to cheat with). The time that Paula was drenched in Paraquat, dumped from army helicopters, on her way to school.

Upon graduation, family friend Mike helps Ladydi procure a job as a nanny to a rich couple in Acapulco (Part II). Unfortunately, Ladydi never does get to meet the Domingos; shortly after her arrival, she learns that they’ve been dead for at least a month, assassinated by a drug cartel. Along with the longtime maid, Jacaranda, and Julio the gardener, the trio camp out at the abandoned house, trying to find work and make due. What little happiness Ladydi has managed to eke out comes crashing down when the police raid the home and arrest her for several murders she did not commit. Even though she’s a juvenile, Ladydi is sent to Santa Marta Jail in Mexico City, where her cellmate is Luna – a Mayan Indian from Guatemala who lost an arm in a train mishap while trying to cross the border into the United States (Part III).

Prayers for the Stolen is an arresting story; Ladydi, a captivating storyteller. She manages to be world-weary and realistic without succumbing to bitterness – a difficult feat to pull off. She frequently jumps between time and place, giving the story a disconnected, dreamy, occasionally surreal feeling (thanks in no small part to the sometimes bizarre sayings and actions of Mrs. Martínez). While my hyper-organized, Type A personality initially had trouble with the loose structure of the story – forever trying to place events in their correct chronological order – once I let go, I quickly found myself swallowed up by the tale.

Clement is a poet, and I don’t just mean literally (though she’s that too) – her words have a lovely lyrical quality to them. The beauty of Clement’s prose underscores the grim reality it often portrays: poverty, alcoholism, broken families, fractured communities, kidnapping, rape, and murder.

The failed war on drugs looms large, sometimes in unexpected ways: The dearth of doctors (who fear they may be kidnapped and either ransomed or enslaved by drug traffickers). The government-sponsored blanketing of poisons on their own people (the herbicides are meant for the poppy fields; but, as helicopters are often shot down, pilots are just as likely to empty their loads on random fields and houses and call it a day). The targeting of certain young girls for sexual slavery by human traffickers (“She’d been picked out a long time ago, my mother said. She’d been watched the way we watch an apple on a tree: we watch it grow until it’s ripe and then we pick it.”).

The author also explores the odd juxtaposition of technology with more “primitive” (for lack of a better word) living conditions – high-def, large screen television sets housed in rooms with dirt floors – especially through the Martínezes proud “television knowledge.” (Yes, Ladydi is indeed named after that Lady Di – but not in a good way.)

I almost always take notes as I read; and I took nearly as many pages of notes for Prayers for the Stolen as I have for novels twice as long. Many of these are memorable quotes or passages, as the book is simply brimming with them:

“In this land one can go out for a walk and find a huge iguana, a papaya tree covered with dozens of large fruits, an enormous anthill, marijuana plants, poppies, or a corpse.”

“I watched my mother cut the tall grasses with her machete, or kill an iguana by breaking its head with a large stone, or scrape the thorns off a maguey pad, or kill a chicken by twisting its neck in her hands, and it was if all the objects around her were my father’s body. When she cut up a tomato I knew it was his heart she was slicing into thin wheels.”

“We were just two pages from the continent’s history books. You could tear us out and roll us into a ball and throw us in the trash.”

“I never buried my arm, Luna said. Does one bury parts of oneself?”

“That day all anyone could hear was the sound of cell phones. That was it. It was the sound of Paula stolen. That was the song.”

“My body […] is the army’s damn poppy field.”

Though it’s often a difficult read (emotionally; otherwise it simply flies by), Prayers for the Stolen is very much worth it. The Extra Libris edition comes with a Reader’s Guide and essay by the author that add an extra depth to the text – as does the cover art by Edel Rodriguez (gorgeous!) and the rustic, deckle edge pages.

(This review is also available on Blogging for Books, Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: The story takes place in Mexico: first on a rural mountain Guerrero, in a village comprised mostly of women; then in nearby Acapulco; and finally in a women’s prison in Mexico City. Fittingly, all but one of the characters (a Brit named Georgia, doing time for drug trafficking) are POC; most are women. Ladydi’s cellmate Luna lost one arm in a train accident; Estafani’s mother has AIDS; and Aurora is sick from exposure to pesticides/herbicides/insecticides. Ladydi’s mother struggles with alcoholism, and Paula suffers from PTSD after she was kidnapped and repeatedly raped.


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