House of Beauty by Melba Escobar, translated by Elizabeth Bryer

Originally published in 2015 as La Casa de la Belleza.
English translation first published in 2018.

House of Beauty is a high-end salon in Bogotá’s exclusive Zona Rosa area, and Karen is one of its best beauticians. But there is more to her role than the best way to apply wax, or how to give the perfect massage. Her clients share their most intimate secrets with her. She knows all about their breast implants, their weekends in Miami, their divorces and affairs.

One rainy afternoon a teenage girl turns up for a treatment with Karen, dressed in her school uniform and smelling of alcohol. The very next day, the girl is found dead.

Karen was the last person to see the girl alive, and the girl’s mother is desperate to find out what she knows. Most important of all: who was her daughter going to meet that night?

Typically I like to write my reviews within a few days, preferably a few hours, of finishing a book. Unfortunately the past couple of weeks have been so busy that, while I have finished several books, I have not had a chance to sit down and write about any of them until now. That is hardly an ideal set of circumstances for a book blogger, so I apologize in advance if these thoughts seem a little vaguer than usual.

House of Beauty is narrated by Claire Dalvard, a psychoanalyst who has recently returned to Colombia after living in France for a number of years. While walking the city’s streets one afternoon, Claire stumbles upon the House of Beauty, a high-end salon, where she meets Karen whose beauty and tranquility she finds quite striking and impulsively she asks for a treatment.

Over a series of appointments Claire gets to know Karen better and learns more of her story, including the circumstances by which she came to start working there. We also learn that one of her customers at about that time was Sabrina Guzmán, a teenaged schoolgirl, who arrived at the salon smelling of brandy and requesting a Brazilian wax as her boyfriend would be taking her to dinner and ‘the night would conclude in a five-star hotel’.

Sabrina is found dead a few days later. The coroner’s verdict is that she committed suicide but her mother refuses to accept it, heading to the House of Beauty to meet with Karen in the hope of learning more about her final hours. Karen knows the name of Sabrina’s boyfriend but that alone cannot guarantee justice as the family find themselves contending with police bureaucracy and the boyfriend’s powerful friends…

The translation of House of Beauty was marketed as a crime story and it is easy to see why. The death of Sabrina provides a focus for the narrative and several characters do engage in an investigative process, even if it ends up being a largely informal one. However those who approach this novel primarily as a genre piece will likely feel a little underwhelmed by the experience. While the reader will have a complete understanding of the case by the end of this novel, they may well feel short-changed by the process by which the truth is revealed.

Instead I would suggest that this is far more satisfying when viewed not as a crime that the reader is trying to solve but rather as an exploration of how a crime can impact those whose lives it touches and of the challenges some can face in finding justice. At its most effective, this book can be a powerful and deeply uncomfortable read, emphasizing that those with power exploit it and showing how their actions are enabled by those around them.

Some of the most unsettling chapters are those which are written from the point of view of Sabrina, the murdered girl, as imagined by Claire. These are very short, taking us slowly up to the point at which she is killed. They are heartbreaking, not only because of what physically happens to her (which is horrific) but because we learn how she is emotionally responding to it and the reader will recognize, long before she does, that what she believes is happening and what is are quite different things.

Sabrina is not the only victim in this story and there is at least one other story thread that may well upset readers. While it can make for tough reading, I do think Escobar uses those moments to effectively illustrate those themes I mentioned above.

Perhaps the most successful aspect of the novel though, for me, was the development of the cast of characters many of whom are more complicated than they initially appear. Part of the reason for this is the thoughtful use of the narrative structure with Claire telling the story from the imagined perspectives of those more directly caught up in the events, but I also think it reflects that some of the characters are either untruthful or simply do not understand themselves.

One of the problems of talking about the plot of this book is that much of what I want to discuss most falls into serious spoiler territory. While I have indicated that I don’t think this is best read as a plot-driven story, I obviously want to avoid spoiling it for those who do. This is a little unfortunate though because my biggest problems with the book all relate to its ending.

The problem, being as vague as possible, is that towards the end of the novel there is an effort to provide us with a crime story resolution – to provide a clear solution and resolution to the case. Personally I found the wrapping up of the story to be a little muddled, perhaps because of the narrative structure I had appreciated so much in the earlier stages of the novel, and I found myself having to reread passages to be sure I understood it. In particular, there was one aspect of the resolution I liked quite a lot but felt had not been set up well enough to feel entirely satisfactory.

That struck me as a bit of a shame because while this read was at times a discomforting one, I found many aspects of the book to be really quite effective and I appreciated that this book thoughtfully explores issues related to gender, race and class. As much as I wanted to love the resolution and appreciated some of its ideas, I felt that a few key elements were a little rushed and so didn’t quite have the impact that I might otherwise have expected them to.

The Verdict: A powerful read, though it is more successful as a work exploring the impact of crime than as a detective story.

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