Slash and Burn by Claudia Hernández review – memories of war and motherhood

A former insurgent and her daughters navigate life after wartime in an intense narrative of hope and despair

In her 1983 book Salvador, Joan Didion wrote that El Salvador during its 13-year civil war was “not a culture in which a high value is placed on the definite”, but that “terror is the given of the place”. Both characteristics are vividly honoured in Claudia Hernández’s Slash and Burn. It shares with Anna Burns’s Milkman a focus on how women cope in a conflict made by men; like Milkman, this is a story that could come from only one place, but is carefully unspecific in its details, leaving country and characters unnamed. At its heart is a woman who joins a guerrilla movement, becoming a compañera in the war after suffering abuse by soldiers who terrorise the locals. But the horrors of her experience are a prelude, and most of the book is about the future that during the fighting seemed unreachable.

Several years after the war, the woman has four daughters, though one of them lives in Paris, having been sold to a French family to fund the insurgent cause (there is no “good” side here). Paris represents another world, elusive yet containing everything the woman desires. We see-saw with her through hope and despair: when her daughter does come home for a time, it’s only to tour the country talking to other families who have also lost children.

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