Nervous System by Lina Meruane, trans. by Megan McDowell

This complex novel moves between outer space and private torments to embrace bonds forged in pain.

Lina Meruane’s Nervous System is a novel both fanciful and visceral, pairing the study of the cosmos with medical mysteries and wounds on earth. It is set dually in “the country of the present” and “the country of the past,” the latter swimming with political violence and trauma, and bearing a resemblance to Meruane’s native Chile. Megan McDowell’s translation from the Spanish establishes an eerie tone, both emotional and detached.

The protagonist is Ella. Her partner is El: Are these names, or the Spanish pronouns She and He? El is also known as “the bone guy,” a forensic scientist combing through mass graves, “more migrant bodies made to disappear piece by piece,” to determine cause of death. Ella’s father is simply the Father, her stepmother the Mother; only gradually the reader becomes aware of the Firstborn and the Twins (Boy Twin and Girl Twin), completing a family filled with holes and secrets. Ella is supposed to be writing her doctoral dissertation in astrophysics, but she has stalled. “This final attempt would be spent on stars that had already lost their light and collapsed in on themselves, forming dense black holes.” Instead, she winds up tracking not solar systems but the systems of her own body, as an undiagnosed condition contributes to her long, slow downfall.

The narrative unfolds in a bit of a fever dream, as Ella’s thought process combines words in lyric but not-quite-literal forms, and chronology moves backward and forward. Chapters are set in “future time,” “restless present,” “between times” and “past imperfect.” “The universe has never known harmony, has never been a perfect mechanism, it’s no good for measuring time precisely.” Ella’s “voice is many voices, her question is nervous nebulous shooting short circuit of stars.”

The novel is narrated in a third-person perspective close to Ella’s own consciousness, and characterized by a dreamy, distant way of describing even horrendous events, “women hacked to pieces and children lost in arid lands.” Eventually readers understand that illness, injury and all sorts of damage manifest in the body and in the memory, and great love and animosity can and frequently do exist side by side. Amid these personal and political traumas, family and history, lies commentary on the modern world, relationships, grief and connection. “Maybe with time everything would be restored, but maybe not, because there in the night the stupid stars still hung and sprinkled calcium over the universe.” Nervous System is filled with anguish and unease, but also starlight, which touches Ella at its close.


This review originally ran in the April 27, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 treacherous rats.

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