Books: reading group book reviews for Purgatory

English PEN works in partnership with The Reading Agency to inspire more people to read more books in translation. By offering PEN supported titles through the Reading Groups for Everyone Initiative we have been able to reach readers around the country and get their feedback on the books we promote. We are very grateful to Bloomsbury for donating reading group copies of Purgatory.

Purgatory by Tomás Eloy Martínez, translated by Frank Wynne

Winner of an English PEN Writers in Translation Award

Harrow Library Reading Group

This novel takes us to a place we do not want to go; a place where reality and unreality are interwoven and indistinguishable. Emilia’s newly-wed husband is at odds with her politically ruthless and ambitious father, who engineers both his disappearance and his daughter’s lifetime of searching and waiting for his return. A masterly account of personal and communal suffering under Argentina’s military dictatorship, and a journey into madness.


It is the story of Emilia Dupuy whose husband, Simon Cardoso, disappeared when they were mapping a country road together in the wilderness of Argentina.

Orestes Dupuy, her father, was closely connected to the regime and is an arrogant, hard-line person of considerable influence; he expected his family to live to his expectations, but was also willing to blow with the wind if necessary. He had no qualms about sending his wife to a care home when she was losing her mind; he saved Emilia’s sister Chela and her husband from disaster by making them disappear and he had Emilia released from custody, but not Simon.

Witnesses say Simon was tortured and then killed, but Emilia does not want to believe it, nor the fact that her father was instrumental to his death; the truth is too difficult for her to bear and she looks for him in Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela and the USA, following false leads each time.

Eventually 30 years later in New Jersey she meets him in a restaurant; Simon is looking exactly the same as before, unchanged and untouched by time. Is Simon real or is he a ghost conjured up by Emilia’s refusal to think of him as dead?

The author has well blended fact with fiction and we encounter a country haunted by absence: absence of truth, absence of freedom and absence of dignity. A powerful and gripping story of unresolved grief.


Book Swap, Durham

Purgatory is an achingly painful story of loss and love, intelligently interwoven with a telling of the brutal history of Argentina. It is also the story of a ruthless and ambitious politician, and his relationship with his daughter, his wife and, above all, his country. Most of our group, despite having been politically aware at the time of the Falklands War, knew little of the history of Argentina, and both enjoyed and felt enlightened by this telling of it.

Others of us found it too much of a history lesson to be completely enjoyable as a novel, but nevertheless took much away from the book that will be providing food for thought for some time, not least the anger and frustration invoked by the politician’s controlling and heartless attitude to his daughter and her life. All of us enjoyed the discussion about who, or what, Simon might be: a ghost, an allegory, a metaphor, a mental health problem? Purgatory is an interesting, painful, beguiling book on many levels and we’ve already begun recommending it to others.


Lye Down with a Good Book Reading Group

I enjoyed this book and it left me wanting to know more about the lost people. It is amazing that this all happened such a short time age. The characters were good and held my attention. Not sure about the ending, but maybe that was the only way it could end. Thanks for the chance to read something different.


Brixton Book Group

This book touches on extremely difficult subjects and yet it is a fantastic and memorable read. The author uses changing voices that allow the story and the characters to unfold slowly. It is a reminder of the dictatorships in South America during the 1970s and 1980s and how these have impacted on individuals, in particular one family, both in the short- and long-term.


I do not agree with those reviews that suggest it is a ghost story. Martínez makes reference at one point to the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Central to the architecture of the Museum is the ‘Void’ – an illustration of the destruction and loss of memory, presence and future of people due to the atrocities committed. Purgatory strongly reminds me of this, whilst it also shows how hope and love somehow manage to survive.


Halifax Central Library Book Group

We thought it was an interesting idea, that Emilia thinks she suddenly sees Simón after thirty years – it made us think about how haunting it must be to live with the memory of people who have disappeared – how could you ever be sure you would never see them again? We found the scene where Emilia and Simón are at the military checkpoint at Huacra and the people come out of the dawn half-light and circle the Jeep really frightening.


Immaculate Conception Reading Group, Southampton

We discussed and talked about Purgatory more than we have any book for a long time. Discussion ranged from our ignorance and almost embarrassment in some cases about our lack of knowledge of such regimes and the ‘disappeared’ to the terrible cruelty, physical and mental, that human beings are capable of. Also the fact that we don’t have experience of, therefore cannot understand, the feeling of not knowing – being stuck in time and being unable to move forward (how Madeline McCann’s parents perhaps must feel).


Kingshurst Library Reading Group

We really enjoyed parts of this book, but found the structure challenging. We found the book’s authenticity and re-creation of Argentina both exciting and informative. We learnt lots about a regime that we knew little about before. The idea of longing and being stuck between accepting the past and holding onto hope was one we felt connected emotionally with aspects of everyone’s lives regardless of background.


Chislehurst Library Reading Group

From the description and cover design of this book, we were expecting something densely packed with history and first-hand accounts of the regime described. But on reading it we discovered something very different: a very personal story about love and loss, which really showed what people felt and feared at this time, and the psychology of the ordinary person behind the terror.

We enjoyed the way Martínez played around with narration, keeping the reader guessing all the time. In a lesser story, the confusion of characters, time shifts and mixed voices could have seemed tedious, but the author’s writing was quite captivating and kept most of the group intrigued enough to make the effort of working things out.

We enjoyed how the author was both a narrator and a character in the story, and how he managed to write something almost supernatural, but at the same time made it believable. The only downside being that many loose ends remained, although we realise that was deliberate.

On the whole, a good choice for a reading group book.


To download a pdf of the reviews, please click here.


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