Why we love it: Caroline Brothers’ second novel, The Memory Stones, is a sublimely told and heartbreaking story. While devastating in its depiction of the depths to which humanity can sink, its evocative language and splendid characters make it a pleasure to read.
It’s a hot summer in Buenos Aires, 1976, and Osvaldo and Yolanda Ferrero enjoy time at the beach with their daughters. On their return to the city a military coup means nightly curfews, and gradual curbs on freedom, yet nothing so sinister to deter Osvaldo from publishing cartoons mocking the new military junta. But Osvaldo couldn’t have known what repercussions such an act would have; the crackdown is swift, Osvaldo is forced to flee Argentina and his youngest daughter Julieta, and her fiancé José, disappear. Osvaldo’s actions may be responsible for the couple’s disappearance or Julieta and José’s work with the poor could have marked them as subversives in the eyes of the regime.
Either way, Osvaldo suffers exile and crushing guilt in Paris and then Amsterdam, and Yolanda is left in Buenos Aires to conduct the heartbreaking search for their daughter alone. When Yolanda finds out that Julieta was pregnant when she disappeared, the urgency to find her becomes more heartrending. Over the years, they hear the terrible rumours surrounding the ‘disappeared’ – the unthinkable tortures, the killings, the forced removal of babies born to captive mothers, but no one really knows what has happened and to their hellish frustration, no one has a voice, as any open criticism of the regime is too dangerous. Only the mothers and grandmothers of the disappeared begin to gather in open defiance of the Junta, and in secret they find ways to unearth what has become of these invisible people.
This fictional work evokes the notorious reign of the ‘generals’ in Argentina from 1976 until 1983 when many citizens considered opposed to the regime were imprisoned and murdered. Among these ‘disappeared’ were many pregnant women who gave birth in captivity with the babies appropriated by childless friends of the regime or military families. The now legendary grandmothers and mothers of ‘The Plaza de Mayo’, as they became known, tried – and many are still trying – to find those children. But it’s not always a straightforward process with the children, now grown up, discovering the unpalatable truths about their supposed parents.
This achingly sad story is sometimes told from the narrator’s voice, other times from Osvaldo’s, an exile, father, husband and grandfather. “It is the fury I feel, and then revulsion, after that, an immense, bone-marrow kind of sorrow, that human beings should be capable of this,” he says. The truths he finds are almost unbearable and through Osvaldo Brothers gets to the heart of the frustration and rage that the parents of the disappeared feel: “The opposite of life is not death, I realise; it is disappearance. It scorns us with its impunity. It incarcerates us in its no-man’s-land of silence. It denies us the ability to act.”
The Memory Stones is a beautifully told story about stolen children that recalls not just the Argentinian experience but the many stories of children around the world forcibly taken from their parents without just cause.
Caroline Brothers was born in Australia. She has worked as a foreign correspondent in Europe and Latin America, contributing to the New York Times, International Herald Tribune, the Guardian, the Independent and the Sunday Times Magazine and was a reporter and editor at the International New York Times. She is the author of War and Photography, and the critically acclaimed novel Hinterland. She divides her time between London and Paris.