Cristina Rivera Garza
The Iliac Crest
trans. Sarah Booker
(Feminist Press, 2017)
Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Iliac Crest is both a novel of ideas and one of visceral emotion written with language so precise and rich that at times it can feel overwhelming. It is not a quick nor is it an easy read, rather an intense exploration of borders, boundaries, and definitions: of space and place, past and present, gender, language, and definitions of sanity. Using a traditional Gothic trope, the narrative is presented as a first person account by an unnamed, self-obsessed, and self-identifying-as-male narrator. He presents himself as a man of stature, living in a large house by the ocean, and serving as a doctor at a government hospital for the indigent, the incurable, and the insane called Serenity Shores Sanatorium. It is clear from the outset that this narrator cannot be trusted as he tells a circular story full of contradictions, revisions, and deeply confused perspectives. As readers we are never quite sure whether or not to believe what he is telling us.
The novel opens on a stormy night. The doctor is expecting an ex-lover he refers to as “the Betrayed,” immediately casting himself in a position of power. A woman arrives at his door but she is not the woman he expects. She is instead a young woman claiming to be Mexican writer Amparo Dávila. She is soaked from the storm, scantily clad, and the doctor cannot look away from what for him becomes a central obsession: the curve of her hip bone rising above her skirt or, “the iliac crest.” At first, he tells us, he is filled with desire at the sight of this stranger in his home but then he immediately rewrites the scene telling us that he was instead filled with fear. His fear of her physical presence is palpable and when his ex-lover (“the Betrayed”) arrives later, we see that his pretense at power is mere posturing. The doctor tells us that he fears Dávila not because of her gender or his attraction to her but because “she confessed she was writing about her own disappearance” and “disappearance is contagious.” But ultimately, the doctor comes to realize that everyone associated with the hospital was already “disappeared.”
Dávila and “the Betrayed” quickly form a bond, moving into the house and creating their own language. The doctor’s attempts to circumvent these women are all unsuccessful and he retreats into himself, the world of the hospital, and his own confused awareness of his life. When Amparo Dávila (who the doctor renames “the Impostor”) tells him she knows his “secret”—that he is in fact “a woman”—the doctor slides into a state between madness and sanity and the reader can no longer trust him as a guide through the text.
In an attempt to regain his own sense of self, the narrator embarks on a quest to prove that the woman calling herself Amparo Dávila is an impostor and her claim that he is a woman is untrue. Dávila tells him that someone has stolen her last manuscript and when the narrator discovers it in the hospital archives, he believes he has regained his power. Instead, he descends into a rabbit hole of shifting realities, shifting timelines, and mutable identities. He discovers that Amparo Dávila exists both as an old woman he visits in “North City” and as the young woman in his home. His ex-lover “The Betrayed” becomes “the Betrayer” when she leaves the narrator’s house to become the lover of the very masculine Director of the hospital. The narrator becomes both doctor and patient at the hospital, both male and female, powerful and powerless.
The blurring of borders is central to the novel and to Garza’s message. In a recent interview, she states that writing should attempt to cross borders of genre and language while also highlighting the politics of borders between cities, genders, and definitions of sanity. For Garza, creative writing is bound to bodies and specifically bones; the symbolic power of the novel resides within the materiality of the woman’s bones and particularly within the iliac crest. The narrator’s obsession with the image of Dávila’s iliac crest, the power her body has over him, and his desire to possess and to silence her language and her writing are well-wrought metaphors for the machinations of power in enforcing borders and erasing women’s bodies and books from history.