Midway through Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666, a gang of policemen sit in a coffee shop trading misogynistic jokes. The scene’s grim power arises from its setting: Santa Teresa, a city suffering a decade-long torrent of femicides. Practically all these crimes will go unsolved.
Santa Teresa, and the murders 2666 relentlessly itemises, have their real-world counterparts in Ciudad Juárez, which stands on the border between Mexico and the US. It lies more than 1,000 miles north of Veracruz, the Mexican state where Fernanda Melchor was born, but her books are marinated in precisely the same misogyny and violence. In her extraordinary 2020 novel Hurricane Season, her first to appear in English, she relates the story of a rural murder from multiple viewpoints. Her long, fevered sentences – which carry off daredevil moves, such as shifting tense and viewpoint from one clause to the next – combine with the emotional and physical violence of the story to produce a cacophonous effect. But time spent with her writing leaves no doubt: the unholy noise she creates is the work of someone who knows exactly which notes to hit.
Paradais, which has been longlisted for the International Booker prize, has a tighter focus than Hurricane Season (both are superbly translated into English by Sophie Hughes). Its sentences are less breathless and serpentine, but its subject matter is equally challenging: murder, torture, rape, incest, domestic abuse and numerous forms of exploitation. Again we are in a Mexico where people feel getting what they want means ripping it from someone else’s hands; where young men aspire to join the narcos not because they are evil or homicidal, but because it’s the only route out. Melchor’s determination to show rather than judge, even amid mounting horror, preserves her characters’ humanity.
If Hurricane Season depicted those with almost nothing killing each other for scraps, Paradais is about the faultline between the 1% and those who service their needs. This tension is there in the inability of the main character, Polo, to pronounce the English name of the gated community where he works as a gardener: “Paradise”, rather than the Spanish “Paraíso”. The book’s title is a phonetic rendering of the same: “Paradais, Urquiza corrected Polo the second time he tried to say that gringo shit. It’s pronounced Pa-ra-dais, not Pa-ra-dee-sey. Paradais.”
Polo is just 16, a school dropout; “dark skinned and ugly as sin, his mother would say”. He forms an uneasy friendship (always temporary and transactional in Melchor’s novels) with the blond, overweight and porn-addicted Paradise resident Franco. Franco is obsessed with his neighbour, a mother of two whose husband is a TV celebrity, and this obsession results in the formulation of a plan that spirals steeply downward. To say more would interfere with the book’s incredible dark momentum, even though from the first sentence you know – and spend the next 100 pages desperately resisting knowing – exactly where it’s heading. “I wanted to write a novel that the reader just couldn’t let go [of]”, Melchor said of Hurricane Season. She succeeded, and now she’s done it again.
Polo and Franco’s alliance is complex: Polo is older, but Franco is rich. Polo despises Franco but hangs out with him because he pays for the booze they consume, sometimes to the point of vomiting, in the jungle that lies beyond Paradise’s manicured gardens. Both teenagers are alternately childlike and terrifyingly callous. Polo thinks Franco’s plan is just talk almost until they’re shopping for dark tights, condoms and “kidnapper tape”, but he spurns his chances to back out. He repeatedly imagines the river that runs past Paradise, where he used to fish with his grandfather, as a route to salvation, but when he eventually enters it, it only returns him to the life he wants to escape.
The thematic violence of Paradais is duplicated at sentence level. Polo’s vocabulary is jagged with abusive, misogynistic and homophobic slurs. Franco is a “shit-eating little poof”; a waterway “stank of snatch”; his cousin, who might be pregnant with Polo’s child, is a “skank”, a “slut” and a “whore”.
Amid this assaultive flood, however, fragments of a higher, more baroque register emerge: a “predacious spider”; a “profanatory beast” – a gopher, wrecking the “sempiternal lawns of Paradais”. These unexpected flourishes complicate the story, suggesting the presence of a less neutral narrator than much of the text has us suppose. That Melchor provides no other clue to their identity only adds to the disconcerting effect.
Earlier in the novel, before chaos takes hold, Polo hacks with his machete at “the pestilent jungle of plants that sprang up … on the roadsides, or right in the middle of the splendid gardens of Paradais”. At its end Melchor pointedly describes life in the gated community carrying on as normal, but only because its residents don’t realise their security cameras, guards and walls have proved ineffective. Paradise is already lost; they just haven’t found the bodies yet.
• Paradais by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes, is published by Fitzcarraldo (£10.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply