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Fiction Review Haunting tale of Colombian orphan

The Children
by Carolina Sanin
(MacLehose Press, £14)

THROUGHOUT Colombia there are 2.5 million children — one out of every three — who have lost parents due to civil conflict, HIV/Aids or who’ve been abandoned due to extreme poverty, parental drug abuse or arrest. Of them, 40,000 are “displaced.”

Those are the grim statistics underpinning The Children, a compelling debut novel by young Colombian writer Carolina Sanin, who sheds light on the abandoned children of Bogota in a work imbued with humanity, intelligence and social awareness.

Its protagonist, care worker Laura Romero, does her weekly shopping in one of the many supermarket centres that thrive in the sprawling Colombian capital where, one day, a mysterious beggar who watches the cars outside the mall, makes her an offer. “I’ll keep the child for you,” she whispers and that apparently misheard remark transforms Laura’s life for ever.

A month later, in the middle of a cold Friday night, Laura discovers six-year-old Fidel on the pavement outside her apartment, a mysterious child with apparently no past or family history.  

“The boy had a shaven head and big eyes. There was so much black emptiness in his gaze that it seems as though his face interrupted the night and the night had begun again in his look,” explains the protagonist.

She offers him temporary shelter and then finds him a place in an orphanage before beginning the arduous process of becoming his parental guardian, but, over time, the child seems to change. He starts to sleepwalk, obsessively closes all the doors in her flat and begins to challenge Laura’s own grasp of reality.  

With its strange ghosts, fabled whales, fortune-tellers, locked rooms, uncanny dreams and apparitions, this haunting novel of love, loss and compassion, brilliantly translated by Nick Caistor, has supernatural moments akin to the magic realist movement of the 1970s and 1980s in Latin America.

Sanin proves to be not only an original new writer with an acute grasp of the social problems affecting her country. She's also a captivating storyteller who delves into the inner fears, anxieties and growing isolation of contemporary society.

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