[Restless Books; 2023]

Tr. from the Portuguese by Sophie Lewis

The original title of Patricia’s Melo’s The Simple Art of Killing a Woman presents the novel’s theme impactfully. A literal translation of Mulheres empilhadas would be something close to “piled-up women.” The clunkiness of the wording in English explains why Sophie Lewis, the translator of the novel, chose a different route. Unfortunately, adapting the title to better English phrasing meant abandoning the powerful image evoked by the original: the bodies of dead women stacked up on top of each other. A mighty picture for a book about femicide.

The word femicide—the murder of women for being women—has gained ground in Brazilian discourse in the last decade. Since 2006, the Maria de Penha Law has targeted gender-based violence in the country, specifically in domestic disputes. In 2015, the death of women resulting from such contexts was legally classified as a heinous crime. With The Simple Art of Killing a Woman, Melo takes on the topic in all its brutality by making use of real femicide cases. In the book, the chapters are divided into three groups. In the ones whose title is a letter, Melo writes the main character’s story. Those that use the Greek alphabet deal with the protagonist’s experience in rituals with ayahuasca. Lastly, the numbered chapters are about real-life cases of murdered women. In these, the first line names the perpetrator: husband, ex-husband, ex-boyfriend, father, brother-in-law. The murderer is always a man with whom the victim had a relationship. 

The novel tells the story of a young São Paulo based lawyer who, after being slapped by her boyfriend, decides to move to Cruzeiro do Sul, located in the countryside of Acre, a Brazilian state that borders Bolívia and Peru, in order to work on femicide cases. The move serves to distance the character from her abuser, who nevertheless continues his harassment with constant calls, messages, revenge porn. These events force the character to face past traumas. The violence of the slap across the face from a jealous boyfriend is intensified when we learn that the narrator’s mother was murdered by her father, an event that has deeply defined her. “What I am is having a father who killed my mother. My mother’s death was more than my identity: it was a bomb welded to my body.” After being hit by a partner, who up until then seemed perfect, and then by involving herself in femicide court cases, the character can no longer ignore her past.

Facing this family history requires healing, which the protagonist undertakes through ayahuasca rituals. During her hallucinations, the narrator better understands her past and her mother’s murder. In them, she comes into contact with women warriors who discuss how men should be punished for their violent crimes. The women state how they “would like to break every bone in [the men’s] bodies, not forgetting the smallest fingerbone but starting with their spines, arms, and legs, then crushing their hands, feet, and toes . . . perforate their lungs.” For this reason, the women carry “everywhere a sheaf of arrows with razor-sharp taquara tips.” However, while violent fantasy is cathartic, it does not bring about justice. That, the narrator comes to realize, is found elsewhere.

Violence, nevertheless, is abundant in the language of the book. Along with authors such as Marcelino Freire and Marçal Aquino, Melo has long been read as a descendant of Rubem Fonseca, Brazil’s foremost reference to literature about urban violence. With a type of language known as brutalista, Fonseca’s prose is renowned for its rawness and unflinching look at the brutality of a deeply unequal society. In The Simple Art of Killing a Woman, Melo fits into this tradition by melding fiction and reality when she brings real murder cases into her novel. Moreover, the ferocity of her language is representative of the barbarism in society:

The conclusion I reached by my second week in court was this: we women are dying like flies. You men get hammered and kill us. Men want to fuck and kill us. Men get enraged and kill us. Men want a bit of fun and kill us. Men discover our lovers and kill us. We leave them and men kill us. Men get another lover and kill us. Men are taken down a peg and kill us. Men get home tired after work and kill us.

The variety of men’s motives for violence and the singularity of its outcome (the woman always dies) serves to highlight how women rarely have a way out of the brutality. The roughness of Melo’s language underscores this point.

Melo also uses geographical distance to develop suspense in the novel. A move from São Paulo to a small town in Acre means crossing the entirety of Brazil. Foreign readers are able to understand this by consulting the map provided in the beginning of the book. By moving so far from home, the narrator is isolated. She is away from her loved ones and the world she knows. In addition, the town of Cruzeiro do Sul is instantly hostile; an outsider looking into femicide cases is not welcomed by those in power. Especially not by the men. The tension builds throughout the story, and the reader feels it will end badly.

While the protagonist’s move from São Paulo to Acre serves Melo well in building suspense, it must also be critiqued. While São Paulo is known for its industrialization, Acre is stereotypically seen as backward and underdeveloped. Internal discrimination in Brazil leads people in the southeast, where São Paulo is located, to consider themselves superior to those from Acre and other states in the north of the country. The prejudice is rooted on issues of class and race. As such, a reading of The Simple Art of Killing a Woman cannot ignore the geopolitical relationship between the two states. What are the implications of Melo choosing to make her protagonist leave São Paulo to fight femicide in Acre?

To answer such a question, one must consider how women native to Acre have no agency in the novel. The representation of the state as a sort of faraway, lawless land would be less of an issue if women native to the area were written on equal footing to those from São Paulo. Instead, the relationship between the two groups is closer to a sort of white man’s burden. That is to say, the women in Acre are represented as having to be saved by the ones from São Paulo. This can be seen in how, after her move, the protagonist joins forces with Carla, yet another lawyer from São Paulo in Cruzeiro do Sul, to work on the cases. The only two female characters with agency in the story are from São Paulo; the ones from Acre seem to only be included to die. In such a political novel, more attention should have been paid to such details.

The Simple Art of Killing a Woman is an important book. Although there are shortcomings— specifically how it fails to represent racialized women outside of victimhood—it does bring a crucial issue to the fore. Even though the topic is gaining more attention, a lot of silence remains around the issue of femicide in Brazil. That silence can be dangerous for women. As such, the novel is a defiant work. It sheds light on a problem that society can no longer stay silent about. Femicide is a not-so-well-kept secret in Brazil and has remained a taboo because, as a popular Brazilian saying states, no one should intervene in a dispute between husband and wife. Melo, however, actively challenges this social convention. Women’s lives are in danger; she will not ignore it.

Allysson Casais is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Universidade Federal Fluminense, Rio de Janeiro. His work has appeared in Full Stop and Jornal Rascunho

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