They Toss Bodies at You: On Mariana Enríquez’s “Our Share of Night”
By Elizabeth Gonzalez JamesFebruary 6, 2023
Our Share of Night by Mariana Enríquez
Our Share of Night is an ambitious horror epic that begins in 1981 with Juan Peterson, a recent widower, and his six-year-old son Gaspar, traveling to visit his late wife Rosario’s family at their mansion in the Misiones province of Argentina near the border with Paraguay. Juan is a deeply troubled and contradictory man — he is at once utterly devoted to his grief-stricken son, and yet is gruff, secretive, and physically abusive to him. Juan suffers from an incurable heart condition that could kill him at any minute, and he bears this as well as a darker burden: he works as a medium for Rosario’s family’s cult, the Order, a millionaire class of worshippers devoted to a supernatural evil presence called the Darkness. Though young, Gaspar has seemingly inherited much from his father: he is, like Juan, able to see ghosts; he is morose and withdrawn; and Juan intuits that his child is a natural medium as well. Juan’s in-laws intuit this too, and they are desperate to get hold of the boy. The Darkness has allegedly promised to tell them the secret to eternal life by transferring their consciousnesses into host bodies, and they want Juan to transfer himself into his son, at the cost of destroying Gaspar’s soul. And all this occurs under the shadow of Argentina’s ongoing Dirty War, a seven-year campaign of torture and murder waged by a brutal military dictatorship, resulting in the disappearance of up to 30,000 people. Father and son are hunted and haunted, figuratively and literally, and the book chronicles Juan’s race to protect his child from his in-laws, as well as exploring the history of Juan and Rosario and the colossal destruction wrought by her family and their ilk upon the people of Argentina.
Rosario’s family, the English-born Bradfords, came to Argentina in the 1800s looking for cheap land and opportunity. How did they get rich? “The usual,” Rosario says in a section that narrates her personal history, “looting, partnerships with other powerful people, understanding what side to take during the civil war.” The family owns vast yerba plantations and luxury properties around the country, which keep them well heeled and give them the freedom to pursue their occult practices. Wealth, power, and evil are inextricably linked in Enríquez’s world, and it is only fitting that the Bradfords would pursue the favors of an evil god, an entity that appears when summoned, like a black mist or gel that severs fingers and limbs if anyone tries to touch it, and which hungers for human flesh and then lovingly arranges the body parts and bones of its victims in a mysterious Other Place like a collector posing figurines on a shelf. The concept of a rich and powerful demonic cult has been well trod in books and films, and yet the breadth of the world Enríquez creates through a perversity of detail is astounding.
Beneath the luxurious homes owned by the Bradfords lies a system of secret tunnels, and under the dictatorship, they are only too happy to allow the government to use the tunnels for prisons and torture chambers in exchange for the right to sacrifice the prisoners (and their families) to the Darkness. Torture and dismemberment are overseen by Rosario’s mother, Mercedes, a balding, lipless villain — her lips and teeth were taken by Juan in an unforgettable scene — whose sadism knows no bounds. Mercedes claims that the Darkness demands sacrifices, though Juan, as the only member of the Order who can communicate with it, refutes this, and readers are left to see the randomness of her violence. Many of her victims are young children.
When the Darkness is summoned, scribes are present to take down anything it dictates, though Juan repeatedly throws doubt on whether it is actually speaking, or whether the scribes are only frenzied by the experience and are imagining what it says. “Sometimes it speaks and there’s no way to find meaning in what it says,” Rosario explains. “There is no arguing with faith, though. And it’s impossible to disbelieve when the Darkness comes. So, we trust, and we go on.” The Darkness doesn’t offer a system of faith so much as it offers a justification for cruelty, and an open mouth into which enemies may be thrown.
Complicity is a recurring theme in the novel, and though there are characters who have a clearer sense of right and wrong, there are no heroes. Just about everyone is guilty, whether by abetting cruelty or ignoring it. Our Share of Night is ambitious because it is not only an immersive horror story but also an expansive family history that works to illustrate years of actual exploitation and repression in Argentina.
As a journalist, Enríquez has covered the aftermath of the dictatorship, the cover-ups and betrayals, the ongoing search for answers and closure, so it is no surprise that her fictional work is grounded in this reality. In an essay for Freeman’s that was reprinted in Literary Hub, Enríquez says there was no tradition of horror in Latin American literature when she was growing up, that horror was entertainment, and thus low-class. And so, when she began writing horror, she had to find inspiration in history, in fact. As Enríquez recalls, “I asked myself: what were the first written texts, the first horror texts that I had ever read? They were the testimonies of the dictatorship. Bodies disappeared.”
Disappeared bodies litter the narrative, and some of Enríquez’s most chilling and surreal moments come from her descriptions of the Other Place, the world where we assume the Darkness lives and which may be accessed through doors that are imperceptible to all but a few. The Other Place is vast and tidy, a realm where human torsos are collected and arranged in a field like felled trees, where severed hands grasp tree trunks like some strange fungus. Gaspar comes home one evening to find his father sitting on the couch holding a box, presumably something he brought back from the Other Place. When Juan insists that Gaspar put his hand in the box, Gaspar is hesitant, knowing it will be nothing good. “[H]is fingers touched what at first he thought were dried bugs: they had a fragile texture and made that pearly sound; hundreds of small things that had once been alive,” Gaspar initially thinks. “Then he realized that what at first touch he’d thought were legs were actually hairs. […] Eyelashes. […] The whole box was filled with eyelids.” This discovery brings to mind Carolyn Forché’s brutal poem “The Colonel,” and the ease with which the poem’s subject tosses a grocery bag filled with human ears onto a table: “They were like / dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this.”
The horror of Forché’s poem comes from the way that one image of the dried peach halves sticks with you long after you read her words. When a book returns again and again to rape, torture, and dismemberment, to teeth filed into sharp points, the horror of it begins to blur, the images losing their impact upon the repetition. Don’t get me wrong — Our Share of Night is a remarkable book and one that I hope will influence Latin American literature for a long time, as it shows the heights an author can reach marrying horror to horrifying reality. But I felt that the impact of the bodies, the mutilation, was occasionally lost on me. After putting the book down, I felt like I needed to go look at pictures of flowers or quaint country cottages, anything to get myself out of the depersonalized hell of Enríquez’s world, where human bodies are so many grains of sand. Perhaps there are only so many horrors I can consume at once. Perhaps I am sheltered. Perhaps I am complicit in my urge to turn away.
The novel is told from the perspective of a select few viewpoint characters, one of whom, Olga Gallardo, is given about 20 pages to narrate her important piece of the story. Gallardo is a journalist in 1993 covering a newly discovered mass grave not far from the Bradfords’ estate. The Zañartú Pit, as it is called, has only been partially excavated, and already the remains of 30 people have been discovered. The government is slow to clean and identify the bones; meanwhile, the relatives of the disappeared gather in a nearby town to wait, always to wait, and hope for an answer. There are obvious parallels between the Pit and the Other Place, both collections of dismembered pieces, where human lives are reduced to a femur, a mandible. Paragraphs of this section could have been lifted from a newspaper; Enríquez has to ask little of her readers’ imaginations here. “In Argentina, they toss bodies at you.”
Gallardo interviews the people who wait for a positive identification of the remains. A descendent of one of the native peoples of Argentina, a Guaraní woman who has endured the murder of her husband for participating in a strike, says to Gallardo, “This country disrespects its victims,” a phrase that made me pause and reconsider Enríquez’s intent with this novel. Perhaps in meditating over the torsos, the eyelids, the filed teeth, the bottomless pit of cruelty that lives inside some people, and the bodies, bodies, bodies that lie at their feet, Enríquez is shining a light on each femur, each mandible, bringing it out of the place where it was tossed and forgotten, bestowing dignity on the disregarded.
Unsettling and tragic, poignant and true, Our Share of Night is a masterwork from a writer with an unflinching gaze. If you can manage to hold that gaze with her, you will be richly rewarded.
Elizabeth Gonzalez James is the author of the novels Mona at Sea (SFWP, 2021) and The Bullet Swallower (forthcoming, Simon & Schuster, 2024).
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