[Restless Books, 2022; Dead Ink Books, 2024]

Tr. from the Spanish by Sarah Booker

A woman and her girlfriends excitedly enter a warehouse where there’s roller skating and dancing. They are “trying to embrace the untouchable or unnameable while pouring [themselves] out among the crowd and the noise.” At the bar, the woman runs into a man she knows. They have met before once or twice. His hands and eyes are familiar. She pulls him outside and they skate to his home, where he invites her in. The man starts undressing her, and she is naked from the waist down by the time they make it inside. What follows sets the tone for the rest of the book: “He didn’t turn on the light, he just kissed my nipples and kissed my thighs and savored my bleeding vagina and with that blood he returned to my mouth and kept kissing me with a smoothness I had never experienced before—damned tenderness that swallows what’s left of me: shame about my bones and skinny legs.”

Centering a woman’s body in all of its material realities, Blood Red is Ecuadorian writer Gabriela Ponce’s debut novel. First published in Spanish as Sanguínea in 2019, it is now out in a superb English translation by Sarah Booker, who is known for her translations of Cristina Rivera Garza and Mónica Ojeda. Blood Red is a hypnotic novel, itself seemingly hypnotized by bodily fluids. Ponce’s narrative pace is frenetic: she writes short chapters in a stream-of-consciousness style that lends itself to visceral imagery. Unsurprisingly, blood is a reigning motif. In an interview with Gabriela Toro Aguilar, Ponce agrees when Aguilar says that “menstruation is almost the spirit of the novel; it comes suddenly, maintains its rhythm, is abundant, or drips, appears thick and also liquid, painful or warm.” Ponce responds that the book was written to the flow of blood, the rhythm of periods. She turns that monthly occurrence into a powerful, intimate language that colors the inner life of her character.

The unnamed protagonist of Blood Red, a married woman in her late thirties who’s separated from her husband, turns her life into a paean to the physical. She is obsessed with blood, the color red, and holes. She likes to indulge herself, to get lost in her body, to be one with the world. Her intense relationship with the man from the warehouse, a filmmaker and artist, is strictly corporeal. He is a man of few words whose house, next to an auto repair shop, is designated “the cave”: “The walls with clumps of green moss growing on them, the moisture dripping from the surface, the density of the air . . . each time the place would get wilder; it grew mounds and crests of dirt that turned to dust. . . . And then there was the garden, a wild superimposition of bushes and trunks and fruit trees around which grew buildings.” Nature creeps into the man-made, making itself palpable through available and usurped crevices. The protagonist is not disgusted by these surroundings, but fascinated.

Ponce is similarly matter-of-fact about things beyond blood and biology. In her work, sex involves a deep, frightening passion and a flagrant dismissal of conventions. The opening scene involving blood play is merely a tiny peek into what comes later: “The cave was the nail and the door and it was the window and it was the buzzing of insects that contained the excess my body couldn’t resist, a ferment that flowed through me.” The breathlessness of this sentence, the quick succession of images enabled by focus shifts, conveys the protagonist’s heightened sensorial relationship to her surroundings. The fecund plurality of the cave, and the possibilities it presents for transformation, suggest pleasure not only for the narrator, but also for Ponce and Booker as prose stylists. The flourishing organic life within the cave, at once vegetal and animalistic, acts like a rejuvenating elixir. The protagonist almost sees the light: “The difference or the fusion produces a little collapse that takes place between the material and formless, between the fragile, soft flesh of our organs and something beyond them.” The pair’s intercourse pulls them from the realm of the base to the rarefied world of epiphanies.

At the same time, Ponce’s narrator has a long-abiding fear of holes that threaten to swallow her. A hole is an opening, limitless potential, the abyss that stares back. Whenever a hole crops up, the reader vicariously feels this anxiety: “I say the fear I feel is the fear I’ve always felt; it’s an anguish that pulses under my skin, that’s why I chew my fingers, the thick, spongy surface, I chew them because that’s how I alleviate the dread.” Even sex with the artist is not enough to escape it: “He fucked me while around us the moss and insects came and went through tiny holes that pierce the walls; I felt the chill of trypophobia: I imagined holes like pores also opening all over his back and swallowing his body.” Like most such elements in the book, this is a carefully calculated image meant to give the ick, while also subverting the axis of desire and disgust. In Blood Red, Ponce expands the ambit of arousal.

Yet, for the protagonist, holes must be closed before they overwhelm. Aimlessly walking about the city, she thinks to herself: “I can no longer stand feeling the hole like an orbit, like a movement around nothing that makes me feel like vomiting all the time.” Ponce’s narrator is paralysed when the time comes for any crucial choice: “Then came a series of thoughts that filled me with fear, among them the proliferation of doors and my inability to decide which to go through. . . . Waiting was always, for me, a renewed possibility of the end.” For much of the novel, she reviews her failed marriage and analyzes why it failed. In all her life, she thinks, her husband was perhaps the man who understood her best. Recounting to her friend, the narrator admits: “He was able to put together all that scatter that I am—all the pieces came together around him.” And yet, the marriage was on a downward spiral long before it came to an official end.  

When her husband asks for a divorce, the protagonist is destabilized, and her trysts with the filmmaker turn more mercurial. She brings other potential lovers into focus, the unnamed famous poet who lives in Guayaquil and M, a person from Bustarviejo with whom she has maintained an erotic correspondence for years. But the novel’s turning point comes when she finds herself pregnant: “I knew I couldn’t tell the man from the cave we were having a baby. I also knew I couldn’t go through another abortion. I knew I couldn’t have the baby. I knew time was splitting into two and that I couldn’t stay pregnant.” It bears mentioning here that abortion in Ecuador, Ponce’s home country and the setting of Blood Red, is illegal except when there is a threat to the pregnant person’s life and health if they carry the fetus to term or if the pregnancy has resulted from sexual assault. The protagonist does not inform the father. She first goes to her half-sister in Guayaquil and then to M while she makes her decision, eventually choosing to go through with the pregnancy but deciding to put up the baby for adoption. It is here that the novel loses some of its volatility, especially in one long chapter that takes the form of a diary she writes to soothe herself while she is pregnant, forcing herself to write at least once a week. But what the novel drops in terms of narrative momentum is maintained, and even heightened, by the protagonist’s frenzied internal restlessness. Her pregnancy marks a change of narrative pace that vividly expands upon her interiority. Largely confined to M’s house, especially as her pregnancy advances, she sees herself slowly transform. She imagines the lives of other people, remembers her dead brother, and experiences vivid dreams. The diary and, later, painting, allow the protagonist to make peace with uncertainty.

Ponce narrates the conflicting emotions that define the narrator’s daily routine: for her, writing poetry daily is an “amorous chore” and watching reruns of La fiera, her favourite telenovela, on YouTube leads to the “painful pleasure of longing.” The novel’s prose changes with the changes to the protagonist’s mental state, mirroring her turmoil. As usual, blood and the color red are ever present: “I bite my lip with all my strength until I draw blood, ay, the pleasure of blood coming out of the cut in my lip . . . I wallow on the bathroom tiles, a red dot in this white universe. . . . To miss is a feeling of impotence that traps and rips me open, there’s nothing else, just a mistimed entity that drowns between my thighs. . . . I’m the broken thing that falls apart so easily.”

Gabriela Ponce has mentioned Ariana Harwicz as one of her influences. An Argentine writer, playwright, and documentary maker, Harwicz is known for her novels that explore taboos around femininity, motherhood, and desire. While reading Blood Red, I was reminded of Harwicz’s Involuntary Trilogy, especially the first book which was published as Die, My Love in an English translation by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff in 2017. Both novels venture within the psyche of their female protagonists and complicate understandings of agency, autonomy, and freedom. At one point, Ponce’s narrator muses: “I thought about how to make love with a man was to make love with others, always to evoke or recognize past bodies.” Throughout the novel, from sexual partners to decisions around pregnancy, the protagonist celebrates the ephemeral and engages her corporeal self.

Many sex scenes in Blood Red raised my eyebrows. I did not expect such an upfront and unreserved exploration of sexual desire from the get go: “I unbutton his shirt and reveal two raisin-like nipples I lick. I’ve never sucked a man’s nipple with this kind of love. I suck it imagining black milk will flow out.” Or “My little pussy on a knee, on a bone, getting wet. A man in front kissing my hips, close to my pussy signaling a pleasure to come, licking my uterus with a foreign tongue. Two men. That’s it. Two men, I need two men. All the holes must be filled.” Black milk flowing out of a man’s nipples and licking a uterus were surprising images for me. Ponce clearly does not believe in using euphemisms, and the explicit scenes wonderfully mix the raunchy with the tender. Blood Red is a frank exploration of the body, a novel that suggests its author’s desire to materialize sex. The banal fact of menstrual blood assumes sensuality when consumed during intercourse. The onrush of hormones sets the pace of narration. Even the inherent clumsiness of navigating a threesome while drunk emerges, literarily. All these details suggest Ponce’s talent for rendering the complicated realities of sex in literature—even and especially as she surprises readers.

At one point in the narrative, the protagonist says, “I’ve had the certainty that pleasure is directly proportional to the unease of the moment in which the hole becomes empty again.” In her bid to fill the holes, she goes to every length, yet it seems there is no lasting solution or human connection that could alleviate her condition. She admits: “For me, anything that isn’t falling in love has never merited much attention.” Near the end of the novel, the protagonist has an epiphany about the whole world not being closed-off but connected: “A gust of wind that touches me and touches the waves and all the images that suddenly come to me with a caress.” This is a first step in becoming more at ease. Ultimately, Ponce’s protagonist must learn to like the floundering, the floating in a sea of contradictions. On the beach, she feels a change: “I walk feeling a genuine love for things, landscape, for the certainty of the color red and, above all, a genuine love for my pain.”

Areeb Ahmad is a writer, critic and translator based in New Delhi. He is an Editor-at-Large for India at Asymptote and a Books Editor at Inklette Magazine. Their writing has appeared in Gulmohur QuarterlyScroll.inThe CaravanBusiness StandardHindustan Times, and elsewhere. He is @Bankrupt_Bookworm on Instagram and @Broke_Bookworm on Twitter.

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