Have you ever come home from a trip with friends wishing you could run away and start a new life together?
Cantoras by Carolina de Robertis (The Gods of Tango, The Invisible Mountain) is about five queer women who do just that: Flaca, a butcher’s daughter and unabashed ‘Don Juana’, who talks four others into a week’s camping holiday on an isolated beach; Romina, a political activist and Flaca’s best friend and first lover; La Venus, Flaca’s latest conquest, a beautiful housewife in a lacklustre marriage to a man; Malena, a reserved office worker with boundless compassion and a painful past; and Paz, a 17-year-old student whose curiosity and passion hasn’t yet been squelched by life under a repressive regime.
Over a week of bonding, laughing, and escaping from life under the brutal Proceso – the dictatorship – in Montevideo, Paz befriends the local shopkeeper who tells her about a ramshackle fisherman’s hut that’s for sale. A few weeks after they get back to the city, Flaca hatches a wild plan for them to pool their money and buy the cabin. It takes a few months, but they manage to do it, and La Proa is theirs. Their different socio-economic backgrounds remain an undercurrent throughout the story, and there’s a fascinating exploration of labor and class in a changing society.
The book then follows Flaca, Paz, La Venus, Romina, and Malena over the next 40 years as their lives, relationships, beach, and country change. La Proa remains the one constant in their lives, a place where they are a little more free. The timeline alternately crawls and leaps forward, sometimes skipping years ahead and other times delving deep into a few days. Over the years, they fall in and out of love, fight, start businesses, move abroad and return home, come out to their families, and even smuggle an illicit sex toy into the country. There is trauma, yes, but also triumph, love, and hope. It’s a moving portrayal of a chosen family in all its messy beauty. The rich characters paint a nuanced portrait of queerness, embracing complexity and individuality in a way that left me unsure if I wanted to be them, or just date them. Maybe both?
Just as it explores how there’s more than one way to be queer, the novel also expresses how different people cope with challenges, particularly political repression and its aftermath. Author Jacqueline Woodson called Cantoras a “stunning lullaby to revolution,” capturing the feeling of hope and connection I felt while reading – despite the pain and trauma. Sometimes resistance means organising an uprising or marching in the streets, and sometimes it means surviving another day. Cantoras makes the case that both are valid, and that the work of revolution doesn’t begin with protest or end with regime change. The historian in me was so captivated that after finishing it, I immediately re-read the book so I could focus on the political elements now that I knew the characters.
Ultimately, I loved this novel because of the way it weaves history with individual narratives and embraces complexity in all things. History is so much more than names and dates – it’s the study of which events and whose stories are deemed important enough to record. That’s normally the rich and powerful, and de Robertis offers a beautiful reminder that history happens to ordinary people, too. It left me wanting to tell my friends how much I love them, then go start a commune where we can listen to the crash of the waves and read books all day.