Review: Boulder by Eva Baltasar (translated by Julia Sanchez)

No man is an island, but a woman can certainly try to be in this short but depth-plumbing novel. Beginning on the bewitched island of Chiloe, we follow our unnamed narrator, a Catalan woman who is chasing emptiness, “an emptiness I had dreamed of so often I’d turned it into a mast”. She’s an analogue nomad in a digital world, working her way from port to port in camp kitchens and freighter galleys. She enjoys the elemental, visceral grind of her labour: “the thing I most enjoy about my job is handling food while it’s still whole … food comes to us wrapped in skin, and to prepare it you need a knife”; the making of the bread seems to satisfy more than just hunger:

I start the dough in the evenings and let it rise all night. I like to get under the covers knowing that out there another covered body lies awake, working on my behalf.

But all of that comes under threat when she meets Samsa, a geologist who she guesses at first glance is “Scandinavian and makes her living from a multinational with blood on its hands,” an assessment that proves to be correct. After a few hot if irregular dockings in various Chilean ports (“I became conscious of the magma seething beneath the miracle of our oceans and continents”), our narrator moves to join Samsa in Icelandic domesticity, proving that no matter how many oceans separate them, lesbians will always find a way to move in together within the first six dates. Samsa swiftly makes her stamp on our narrator, even going so far as to cast off her given name and rename her Boulder.

Boulder is a juicy domestic horror. There’s nothing supernatural about the forces that take over Boulder’s life, taking root like the love that “grows like brambles, strangles the furniture” in their Icelandic apartment, but they are all the more unnerving for their banality, indeed the way they are elevated by most parts of society: life partnering, co-habitation, babies, the “cordiality” of old relationships. At a passing mention of Canterville I wondered if Boulder’s kitchen knives might be used for something other than flaying fish; the delicious denouement manages to subvert and exceed those expectations of violence.

Baltsasar’s dense prose, beautifully rendered by Julia Sanchez, reminded me of Adam Mars-Jones’s Box Hill, another maybe-maybe-not horror of queers pursuing escape from the straightjacket of hetero life through an idealised queer freedom. It also effectively reveals that even when parts of queerness becomes acceptable we’ve still got to face ourselves and our bodies. These are I think the same “moral wilds” described by Ronnie Scott in his post-gay marriage, post-PreP novel The Adversary. It’s interesting that the two examples that come to mind are stories of queer men; Boulder transgresses gender roles with its protagonist who prefers the rough company of the ship’s hold (a different kind of confined space), to whom children are drawn “the same way cats zero in on people who are allergic to them”. She also comes with the mysogynistic baggage.

Boulder develops these ideas through the imagery of geology and geomorphology. It begins with an image of concrete blocks tethering a wharf to the sea floor. Sex has the force of continents colliding and heaving up mountains, it “fizzes like compressed gas out of a crack in the earth”; Boulder describes the “concrete point between my legs”. Samsa becomes for her:

a mountain towering before me, a natural border only suitable for animals, packed with death and snow. Her law is mineral, which means there’s nothing to be done — no threats or tactics I can resort to, no movement that can shake her. … Somewhere there is a list of the names of women and mountains like Samsa.

Baltasar gets a lot of mileage, often very funny, out of the contrast between these planetary forces and her characters’ human frailties. “Every orgasm is a small funeral,” Boulder grimly quips on the nature of pre-parenting sex, and later on at a group where the new mothers breastfeed together: “they’re orgies”. Boulder seems to long for escape from her flesh prison, the smooth hardness of a life unentangled with the things that make life living, but she reckons without the magmatic forces roiling underneath the surface. “Blood, the snitch everyone hates,” Boulder writes. “It keeps you alive on one condition: transparency”.

Gay rating: 5/5 for graphic queer sex, themes, characters and relationships.


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