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.
The novel is controlled and defined by its style: long, tightly knitted paragraphs of intricate memories with no direct speech. The sustained interiority of the narrative makes for an intensive reading experience, but it’s a tribute both to Hernández’s careful structure and to Julia Sanches’s translation that the reader is only briefly disoriented each time the narrative passes from mother to daughter to sister. Men, whose best option during the war was to be a deserter, remain largely absent afterwards, and make themselves unwelcome when they do appear.
What Slash and Burn – named after a method of agriculture both destructive and regenerative – shows is the difficulty of creating a new life after war or other trauma. The mother is unsure how to identify herself: with her nom de guerre or her birth name? Has life returned to normal, or begun anew? Her daughters struggle with the opportunities for education and travel that the “success” of the war has opened for them. Because all in all, we are powerfully reminded, “none of it was under their control. It may never have been.”
• Slash and Burn by Claudia Hernández, translated by Julia Sanches, is published by And Other Stories (RRP £11.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.