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Book review: Woman’s metamorphosis grows with silence in Paulette Jonguitud’s Mildew

A husband’s betrayal sets the stage for a striking and surreal commentary on the female body and the things unsaid.
Paulette Jonguitud’s Mildew is, in part, an exploration of a betrayed wife’s growing alienation from her body. Dennie Cody
Paulette Jonguitud’s Mildew is, in part, an exploration of a betrayed wife’s growing alienation from her body. Dennie Cody

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, women transform into trees, stars, the echo of a sound. They seldom become animals, but usually something less easily anthropomorphised, something that does not have its own voice. They transform, most frequently, to escape the attentions of men. Their metamorphosis, though, terrible, is also a relief.

The heroine of Mexican author Paulette Jonguitud’s Mildew finds a green spot on her upper thigh. It is the day before her own daughter’s wedding and a short time after she discovered her husband’s affair with her niece, whom the couple also brought up as their daughter. She is determined not to spoil the occasion, to say nothing of the affair. Constanza has the same name as her troubled niece, who has dyed her hair a colour identical to her aunt’s. Quasi-incest, betrayal, family power struggles: so far, so Greek myth.

As the spot spreads to cover Constanza’s legs with a fine green powder, Jonguitud examines the limits of what is human and, more particularly, the nature of human identity for women, which is intimately bound up with their physicality.

Dissatisfied with her ageing body in the mirror’s “personal audition that I fail every morning”, the mother sees not only herself, but her husband’s lover fragment.

Only the younger Constanza “inhabited every last corner of her body”, while the narrator, in bed with her husband, feels herself no more than a collection of limbs, unable to act as an entire person. A costume designer, she lives in a world of “mannequins, disembodied heads and arms”.

It is a world of women, almost a world of woman, which manifests across a number of bodies and limbs each physically linked but helplessly unknowable to the other.

As her “mildew” progresses Constanza researches her condition, helplessly googling deformed babies: “He was no longer a boy. He was something else. Would I stop being a woman?”

Her fixation on the diseases of children is important. For Constanza, the mother’s body and the child’s body are hopelessly – understandably – confused. As she once helped her niece procure an abortion there is, for her, no moral way out of this tangle.

The book’s greatest power lies in Jonguitud’s ability to evoke these terrible maternal passions.

It is interesting to draw parallels with other recent works by women from different cultures that pick up similar themes. In the face of unbearable cultural pressures, Korean author Han Kang’s The Vegetarian desires to transform herself into a passive plant. Like Elena Ferrante’s betrayed wife in The Days of Abandonment, Constanza’s situation drives her close to stepping over to the other side of sanity. “I knew that I had crossed a terrible barrier,” says Constanza and, just as with the Italian author’s heroine, the opportunity for this occurs via an hallucination of a ghost.

Jonguitud confirms that female humanity is liminal, unstable, just as men always suspected: “This is a leg, these are fingers, this is what? An ankle, perhaps.” Like some of Ovid’s heroines, her narrator gets to like being a “monster”.

“Why do I speak? To clear the mildew away.” Shame and secrecy are the story’s prime movers. Constanza has encouraged the conditions necessary for the mildew’s growth, and grow it does. She works in the company where here niece was briefly a talented actress (“Pain never fails when it comes to theatre”); her most recent production: Macbeth.

Sewing her daughter’s wedding dress, she is as expert as that play’s heroine in covering things up, making a show. Told in the icy simplicity of the author’s own translation, the story makes it clear that words are of less use than what is concealed between them. Though Constanza is gradually covered by “mildew”, she must finally reveal what has been hidden, though, by the time she is ready to do this, neither the reader nor the narrator are sure what is real and what is fantasy.

A strong, slim book on the inabilities of women to speak openly about what they are to each other, and to themselves.

Joanna Walsh is the author of Vertigo which will be published in October. She edits fiction at 3:AM magazine and runs @read_women.

Updated: September 10, 2015 04:00 AM

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