“Our creative process was born there, in the bottom of garbage cans our parents emptied so that we could sit quietly, observing the world and putting it into words,” writes Caroline Dawson in an autobiographical novel that not only maps her family history – irrevocably shaped by their flight in 1986 from Pinochet’s Chile – but charts the shape of her artistic identity. Seamlessly translated into English by Anita Anand, As the Andes Disappeared is a poignant exploration of cultural loss, parental sacrifice, language, and the enduring feeling – a lifelong echo – of being an outsider.
As the title suggests, As the Andes Disappeared is a book about perspective. It begins with protagonist Caroline at the age of seven, perched in the windowsill of her home, staring out at the Andes as she contemplates suicide. Confused by the news of her family’s departure for Canada, she recalls: “I looked at the ground from the top of my cliff. It didn’t shrink back; it invited me. Jump little one. The life you used to have no longer exists.” But she climbs down and faces her new life in Canada, where she will shift from being the extroverted child of two gregarious cultural workers to a cautious student watching her parents repress their own personalities as they tirelessly move through physically demanding jobs.
She spends her first years in Montreal looking up, observing, and absorbing as a method of survival. She observes the bullies at school and what makes them flare up, and the sex workers who dwell outside the front door of her apartment; she notes the shape of the French language in her mouth, the disdain of her teachers, and the way her parents change.
As the Andes Disappeared is structured in three parts, constituted of 39 short, imagistic chapters. The years pass swiftly, and the reader experiences Caroline’s childhood through emblematic moments: being mocked for her Chilean lunch fare, an early effort at poetry ignored by her teacher, the discovery of Réjean Ducharme’s acclaimed novel Swallowed in her school library – “the day I discovered Ducharme, the French language gave me a voice. And one day I’d use it to tell my own story.”
By the time Caroline is in high school, her parents are able to leave their apartment in working-class Hochelaga-Maisonneuve and buy a house in Brossard, one of the suburbs of Montreal. In one standout chapter, “Love is in your eyes tonight,” Caroline finds herself at a house party in her new neighbourhood, in one of the homes her mother cleans for a living. Staring into the grey eyes of a boy she played alongside as a child – and contemplating kissing him – she suddenly realizes he “had chosen to hold his party on a Thursday because my mother would be there the next day to clean up.”
The vignettes accrue, occasionally dipping into the childhoods of Caroline’s grandmother and mother, and Caroline’s voice hurtles, one stark realization at a time, toward a watershed moment of clarity: “The first time I went to a sociology class at Cégep, it was like hearing my mother tongue. It wasn’t the only language that spoke of reality, nor even the best, but it was the one I recognized as my own.” What begins as an intimate, intergenerational portrait of a family taking refuge is ultimately a story of one woman’s politicization, self-discovery, and literary beginnings.
Sitting somewhere between a memoir, a novel, and a love letter to decades of women who came before her, As the Andes Disappeared is a bold, beautiful, and tender account of becoming a writer.