Carmen's Rust by Ana Maria del Rio is a most unusual first novel. As a reviewer, reading it was not a clear case of like or dislike. At a skimpy 83 pages, the story is too compact, too narrow to be much more than an interesting read. Though the author is clearly a talented writer, Carmen's Rust falls short: it is more like a long short story.
Apparently the novel was written during the vile times when Chili was run under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinchot (1973-1990), an evil ruler known for saying "Never a leaf moves in Chili without my knowing of it." Upon completing the novel, del Rio was forced to submit it to government censors. She had carefully constructed the story and her critique, setting the novel in Chili during the 1950s with "artfully masked references and significant silences."
Carmen and her half brother, the nameless narrator, are deserted by their mother. Forced to live under the strict thumb of their Aunt Malva and their grandmother, the half-siblings learn to depend on each other for happiness. Malva believes that her own son is bound to be the president of Chili, and she treats him like royalty. He is mucg like Sid in Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer (and the story is much like a less developed Flowers In The Attic).
The narrator and Carmen fall in love. It starts out harmlessly enough when they're young. They see kissing in movies, so they try kissing. As they grow, the passion becomes more urgent. Once Aunt Malva is aware of their incestuous desires, she tries to separate them to stop the evil that she believes has overtaken Carmen's soul.
The narrator says, in Chapter Seven:
"At lunch today I asked her to show me her breasts — a scrap of paper I passed to her stuck in a piece of bread, in the purest style of Lagardere. She was about to swallow the bread and the paper whole when she literally began choking at the table. Aunt Malva pretended to help her, but she was just trying to get her hands on the note."
As Malva works to cleanse Carmen's soul by segregating her from the rest of the world, the narrator knows he must act fast and save his half-sister, the young woman he loves, or else risk losing her — as she loses herself — forever.
Though this reviewer would prefer to see more -- more history, more meat and better story development -- Carmen's Rust should take little more than an hour to read and is worth reading. It is not slow; Del Rio uses her words economically, yes, but she also uses words with impact. Interesting and sad, this book is full of literary merit and an engaging story.