Year 2022: 30 Books

When Women Kill: Four Crimes Retold by Alia Trabucco Zerán, trans. by Sophie Hughes

By Jo Livingstone

In the excellent English translation by Sophie Hughes, Alia Trabucco Zerán recounts talking about her book, originally published as Las homicidas. “‘Women who kill,’ I reply, time and again, when people ask me what my book is about.” But then her interlocutors, she explains, “furrow their brows, wince, and then nod their heads in approval of my decision to tackle such a pressing, awful, and all-too-common problem in Latin America.” As her women murderer subjects repeatedly transformed into murdered women in other people’s imaginations, Trabucco Zerán’s surprise yielded to a realization: that “it’s easier for people to imagine a dead woman than a woman prepared to kill.” 

More precisely, her book is about four women convicted of murder in the 20th century in Chile. The four homicidas she reanimates are Corina Rojas, who hired a man to kill her husband in 1916; Rosa Faúndez Cavieres, who killed and dismembered her husband in 1923; María Carolina Geel, who in 1955 shot and killed her boyfriend; and María Teresa Alfaro, who killed three baby girls she nannied along with their grandmother, her boss’s mother, in 1963. Chilean courts convicted each woman of murder, and Trabucco Zeràn’s studies focus as much on the labile reactions of the press and public opinion regarding their defensibility as on the “truth” of each case. When men kill, she argues, their masculinity is not part of the question of their guilt. When these women were convicted, they contradicted the concept of a Chilean woman, as it existed for them. The reactions are where she finds her argument.

Trabucco Zerán was born in Chile in 1983. Her first book, La resta (The Remainder), was shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International, and has been widely translated. Trained as a lawyer, she encourages the different analytical frameworks within her mind to compete with one another. Again and again, sentiment and law and fact seem to contradict one another. How to tell each story? Women Who Kill sticks to reported facts, as far as the narrations of the crimes go, but Trabucco Zerán alternates these sections with passages from a research journal. There, her personal meditations on justice and domesticity and the administration of both can change shape and size, scaling up to the state and down to the individual, ultimately constructing a capacious and flexible argument about the holes that gender can blow in the larger social contract.

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