“Atacama”: a compelling story about love, war, and trauma

Carmen Rodríguez pens powerful Latin American historical fiction

Book cover depicting a desert scene, a crescent moon in the left corner of a pinkish sky.
The Chilean events covered in Rodríguez’ novel remain relevant. Image courtesy of Fernwood Publishing

By: Tamanna T., Staff Writer

From violent strikes like the La Coruña massacre in Chile to the Spanish Civil War in Spain, Carmen Rodríguez’s Atacama is a story firmly rooted in history. Rodríguez, an SFU alum and former Latin American studies instructor, beautifully moulds the fictional characters Manuel Garay and Lucía Céspedes around these real world events. The novel, which explores sexuality, fighting parental trauma, and art as escapism from the harsh reality of war, is a strong and compelling read.

Manuel comes from a family of poor miners, and his father is one of the protestors battling the Chilean government for basic human rights. Meanwhile, Lucía’s family is at the other end of the spectrum. Ernesto Céspedes, is the leader of an army that grows more powerful as more miners are exploited during the Workers Movement — a series of protests organized by the Federation of Chilean Workers. The steps Céspedes takes mirror those of a typical antagonist and fascist leader, demanding death and destruction of those around him.

Caught between anarchism and communism, the two protagonists find their ways in life through art; Manuel in his writing and Lucía in her dance. Their lives intermingle with each other in complicated, yet intriguing, ways that leave the reader haunted and begging for more. 

Lucía’s father initiates events that lead the two protagonists on journeys of love, self-discovery, trauma, and acceptance. While their familial positions could not be any more different, Manuel and Lucía manage to conjure a friendship that lasts a lifetime. 

Rodríguez does an exemplary job depicting emotions of love and pleasure amidst civil war and family drama. From the beginning of the novel, the consistent flow of events had me hooked and my curiosity increased tenfold every time I flipped a page. The author is successful at blending two very different worlds, as well as merging fiction with history. 

Lucía and Manuel’s coming of age story arc allows readers to relate to and find their own journey within that of the main characters. Atacama is an engrossing tale fixed upon social justice and wanting to do what is right — not just for yourself, but for those around you. With a 70 year timespan, Rodríguez’s novel covers key sociopolitical issues in depth. After following Lucía and Manuel around the world, the story ends here in Vancouver, which ties the tale together wonderfully and will make readers want more Latin American diasporic stories.

The fiction intermingles beautifully with the historical aspect of the novel, flowing so excellently together that I was left wondering what was real and what was not. While the historical events in the novel happened over 100 years ago, the depictions of tyranny, resilience, and crusading for the rights of the underrepresented still ring true today. 

Atacama is available for purchase worldwide via Fernwood Publishing. Trigger warning: book contains descriptions of violent events.

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