The Disappearance of Irene Dos Santos
The Disappearance of Irene Dos Santos is an elaborate story of two childhood friends, Lily and Irene. Despite their differences, Lily Martinez, who comes from a middle class family, and Irene Dos Santos, who comes from a wealthier family, quickly become friends while attending a private school together in Caracas, Venezuela.
Irene is "the controller in their society of two." She introduces Lily to her first boyfriend and teaches her how to French kiss. Lily’s parents soon find out about the kissing incident, and as a result, Lily is immediately transferred to a nearby Catholic school, separating the girls from their powerful friendship. But the girl's forced separation does not last long.
When Lily's family decides to go on vacation, she is allowed to take along a friend. Without hesitation Lily chooses Irene, and her family reluctantly agrees. On the vacation, Lily and Irene go swimming in a lake, but Irene mysteriously disappears. Lily only remember parts of the incident, and revisits the disappearance when she is about to give birth fifteen years later after discovering a letter from Irene.
Each chapter introduces a new character, which may seem confusing at first—but you come to realize that each character and their story relate to another. Despite this non-linear format, the words flow seamlessly together. Like many South American novels—such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude—dreams, reality, and mystery are mixed throughout Mascarenhas' book as a sort of magical realism.
The story is full of Venezuelan folklore, and I was particularly fond of the reference to María Lionza‘s La Reina ("The Queen"). Lionza is a supposedly mythical character that people from all classes in Venezuela revere—she is more of a cult icon. Her various appearances throughout the story are one of the many examples in The Disappearance of Irene Dos Santos of symbolism being just as important as the storyline itself. The best part of the story was at the very end. I thought I had figured out the ending despite the multilayered storyline and intricate characters, but Mascarenhas surprised me.
The Disappearance of Irene Dos Santos is about friendship and family, connecting memories with the present and fantasy with tangibility. At times the complexity of the story led me to put down the book in order to mull over what had just happened, but I think that was the author's intention. I came away from the book not only learning about Venezuelan culture and myth, but, more importantly, that bonds between friends and family members can be left unexplained. Cross-posted with Gender Across Borders