A Week in October by Elizabeth Subercaseaux

A Week In October by Elizabeth Subercaseaux  and Marina Harss (Translator)

“He needed her to get better so that he could repay his debt to her.  Five years, that was all he needed.  He couldn’t let her go without making amends or rather he could not let her go and be left behind with this terrible sense of guilt that would not leave him. One morning before going to the office he stopped by the clinic to talk to the doctors.  He wanted to hear them say they could extend her life five years, but the doctors had frightened him with their militaristic, warlike language, a dark language he was sure began to kill their patients and their patients’ families even before the illnesses finished them off.” [18]


Claire Griffin is the beautiful yet unsatisfied wife of a successful architect. After being diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, her husband suggests that she start writing in order to occupy and distract her mind from her illness.Writing is something in which Claire has always had an interest, so she starts writing in a notebook which she keeps hidden in a drawer in the kitchen where her husband quickly finds and begins secretly reading the chapters almost as quickly as she can write them.  Claire starts her book with a bang in a scene where she is in bed with her lover who has just died.  Her husband is shocked to find that she has a lover, and he is even more shocked by what he finds about the identity of his wife’s lover and how she views him and their marriage.  The suspense is palpable and creeps along, rising slowly as we, along with her husband, try to figure out what will happen next and what  is real and what is not.

This was such an interesting read for me.  It is darkly playful and meditative on what it means to write and how we build stories and fiction out of the fodder of our lives, how those closest to us will view and react to this information.  The novel unfolds in alternating chapters of the contents of the notebook and then Claire’s husband reading it and trying to figure out what is true of the life that Claire leads based on his own version of the events that have happened in the notebook.  The husband is ridiculous as he tries to figure out the the truth in a book of fiction, and thus the spell is woven as we try to figure out the truth.  I eagerly awaited his version of what happened in the book  and wondered all the way through how much and what Claire was fictionalizing out of her life, and how ceryain events suggested themselves to be written over others.

What is truth, especially in fiction?  Is it the way events unfolded, or is it the way that you felt about something or the way that you wanted it to happen? Subercaseaux also explores the little truths about marriage and people, our irrational fears and petty jealousies, the way that we don’t talk to each other even as time is running out. Instead of using the notebook to take the opportunity to deepen his relationship with his wife, Claire’s husband chooses to hide from her even as he is reading and trying to uncover all her scecrets.  And, having had his won affair for several years, he is still selfish enough to begrudge his wife an affair, real or imagined, and he selfishly wants her to  live so that she is around to facilitate his atonement  and the forgiveness of his trespasses against her.

This is the first book of Elizabeth Subercaseaux’s that has come out on translation and I am eagerly awaiting the next one.  The writing is spare and not a word is wasted in painting the portrait of a long and ambivalent marriage.  The suspense of what would happen next kept me riveted until the very end.

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