The Iliac Crest: Book Review

Cristina Rivera-Garza’s novel is a twisting journey through the uncanny, coercing its reader into considering the true relationship between identity and the human body.

Cristina Rivera Garza’s ‘The Iliac Crest’ was recently published in the UK for the first time courtesy of And Other Stories. This is a new English Translation by Sarah Booker of a story originally released in Spanish in 2002. Though Garza saw a lot of success in her native Mexico for her novel, the book remains relatively unknown this side of the Atlantic.

The novel opens in media res, with our unnamed narrator questioning his decision to let two women into his house on a “dark and a stormy night”. One woman is a complete stranger, who claims to be the real-life Mexican author Amparo Davila, while the other is a former lover. The women stay in the house seemingly uninvited, developing a close bond and speaking in a tongue completely unknown to the narrator. Everything he understands is called into question when the two women profess to know “his” secret: that he is a woman.

Working in a sanatorium in his coastal home town, the narrator is situated inside a grim reality for the incurably ill members of society – a place to die, safely apart from the outside world and out of view of society. Through his increasing paranoia and the slowly accumulating unanswered questions, the novel descends into a maddening spiral with ever increasing mystery.

There is something distinctly intentional about this novel and it is clear when reading it that Garza has crafted this story with the utmost care and attention. Despite the seemingly free-form, abstract prose, the story is committed to its exploration of borders and liminality in a way that could not be misconstrued as an accident. In her introductory notes, Garza writes:

“Borders are a subtle but pervasive force in this book… Awareness of geopolitical borders soon leads to questions about the many lines we cross – or don’t or aren’t allowed to – as we go about our daily lives.”

For Garza, the geopolitical border need not be so separate from the social or personal. Living between San Diego (California) and Tijuana (Mexico) as she wrote The Iliac Crest, it is easy to see how one might develop a fascination with these spaces considering the violence and inequality that takes place along the U.S./Mexico border. Equating the fear and anxiety associated with geopolitical borders with that of that of gender binaries is a genius move. It grounds an issue that is mostly very difficult for people to understand in a far more tangible form of border – one that is marked by walls, watch towers and security guards.

For someone who writes in a style that might be described as magical realist, Garza is intent on discovering the “trace” left behind when reality descends into chaos. An otherwise abstract prose is grounded in familiarity and references to literary conventions. Garza comments on this in an interview with The Quarterly Conversation:

“I knew I wanted to take readers—and myself—into uncharted territory, and I had learned by then that you can only do so if you offer your reader something familiar to hold on to. So I chose this “dark stormy night” of our gothic stories.”

The book toys with its reader from the very beginning, luring them into a falsely familiar setting before unleashing its surreal potential. Garza’s use of this trick underpins the whole narrative and manifests as the recurring motif of Amparo Davila’s hip, towards which our narrator develops an intense anxiety as the novel progresses.

An “Iliac Crest” refers to a bone in the human pelvis. The bone is shaped differently for men and for women, making it the only part of a human skeleton that can be used to identify sex. She reveals the science behind the metaphor only at the very end of the novel: “I remembered the name of the bone that had simultaneously awoken both my desire and fear”. Looking at the jacket copy of The Iliac Crest, this becomes very apparent. The sleeve uses the book’s title as an anatomical footnote, drawing a clean, black line from it to a medical illustration of the human pelvis.

It is interesting that, in a world of “true” and “false” versions of the same person, an unintelligible “glu-glu” language and heaps of narrative ambiguity, Garza’s insular, dream-like novel is emblazoned with the most “definitive area to determine the sex of an individual”. Beneath its surreal surface, the novel is grounded in the “trace” of reality.

Reading The Iliac Crest, it is easy to compare Garza to popular magical realists such as Marquez or Murakami. The latter is an especially useful point of comparison, as his prose treads through dream-like soliloquy, gritty violence and visceral exploration of bodies. On the jacket copy of the book, Publishers Weekly draw a more filmic comparison, calling the book “a suspenseful psychological horror story in the vein of a David Lynch film”.

Reading the novel with very little context is a lot like your first watch of a movie such as Eraserhead or Mulholland Drive. There is something deep and undiscovered lurking beneath the prose, but Freudian analysis is required to latch on to it. Lynch’s exploration of fear of the pregnant body in Eraserhead is comparable to Garza’s presentation of anxiety around gender fluidity. Like Lynch, Garza finds the horror in the monotony of the everyday and the bodies we are irrevocably tied to.