My name is Ladydi Garcia Martínez and I have brown skin, brown eyes, and brown frizzy hair, and look like everyone else I know. As a child my mother used to dress me up as a boy and call me Boy.
I told everyone a boy was born, she said.
If I were a girl then I would be stolen. All the drug traffickers had to do was hear that there was a pretty girl around and they’d sweep onto our lands in black Escalades and carry the girl off.
In Guerrero, the girls are boys until they are eleven. Then they are made to look ugly and – as suggested by Paula’s mother – made to hide in holes whenever anyone sees or hears an SUV coming.
No one who’s been taken by traffickers has ever returned, apart from Ladydi’s friend, Paula.
She had seven earrings that climbed up the cupped edge of her left ear in a straight line of blue, yellow and green studs and a tattoo that snaked her wrist with the words Cannibal’s Baby.
Ladydi, Paula, Estafani and Maria grow up together in Guerrero. Ladydi lives with her mother, her father having left to live with his other family over the US border. Her mother is a kleptomaniac with a drink problem. On weekends, Ladydi and her mother travel to Acapulco where her mother works as a cleaner for a rich family. Maria has a hairlip and a brother they call Mike. Paula is beautiful and Estefani ‘had the blackest skin ever’ and, after an incident when a snake looked her straight in the eye, is cursed.
The first section of the novel is Ladydi’s coming-of-age story. Clement juxtaposes visits to the beauty parlour for nail painting with burying a dead body, left outside their house. There are secrets from each family exposed and a sexual awakening when a new teacher, José Rosa, comes to work at the school. But as more people begin to disappear, Maria goes to work as a nanny for a rich family in Acapulco.
Prayers for the Stolen is a dark book. Clement illustrates the way poor, brown skinned women in an exposed state in Mexico are treated by men. And when I say women, I mean anyone they consider old enough to rape. Fathers are feckless; brothers are dangerous. An unknown man entering the area is to be feared. Houses are peppered with bullet holes.
What everyone did know was that the queue of visitors waiting to get in outside the women’s jail was long and went way down the road and covered a distance of at least ten blocks. It could take hours for visitors to finally get in and see the men.
It was Luna who had told me this.
There is nothing else one needs to know about anything, she said. No one visits the women. Everyone visits the men. What more do we need to know about the world?
There are two things about the novel that prevent it from descending into utter bleakness: the first is Ladydi’s narration. Although she is more worldly-wise than your average pre-teen, she still has an air of naivety which allows the reader to fill in some of the more depressing aspects of the tale. The second is Clement’s brilliance when imparting huge plot-twists; she slips these in, often in just a sentence placed mid-way through a paragraph. The effect of this is that it takes your brain a moment to process what you’ve just read and when it does so it has a far larger impact than if these moments had been placed at the end of chapters, or a big fanfare been made about them.
Prayers for the Stolen is a brilliant novel. It packs a lot into its slim 222 pages and suggests that amongst all the darkness, there is often a sliver of hope.
Thanks to Vintage for the review copy.