Seven Ways to Kill a Cat by Matias Nespolo

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Seven Ways to Kill a Cat by Matias Nespolo

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Category: Crime
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Ed Prior
Reviewed by Ed Prior
Summary: A fast-paced debut novel with strong characters that paints an unflinching, if two-dimensional portrait of life in a Buenos Aires slum. Sadly let down by a plot that peters out towards the end, Seven Ways to Kill a Cat fails to live up to its early promise, though it's such a brisk, easy read that you barely have time to be disappointed before it's over.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 246 Date: November 2012
Publisher: Vintage Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780099552383

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The Argentinian economy is in meltdown and the streets of Buenos Aires are awash with protestors, but this means little to those struggling to survive in the shanty towns clinging to the city's edge. In the barrio every day is hard and the choices you make really do mean the difference between life and death. Gringo, a youth on the verge of becoming a man and Chueco, his unreliable friend, both short on options, are drawn to the local gang culture and the seemingly easy money it offers. But, with a turf war brewing, can either of them survive the coming storm?

Matías Néspolo's lean, mean debut novel barrels along, reflecting the fast pace of life in the Buenos Aires slums, where the past is best forgotten and tomorrow may never come. Told in first person, present tense by young protagonist Gringo, Seven Ways to Kill a Cat has a fantastic sense of immediacy, making this a generally compelling read. Gringo is a well-drawn, convincing character, his pointedly expressed opinions painting a vivid picture of the people in his orbit.

The brutal killing, gutting and skinning of a cat that opens the story sets the tone for the rest of the novel. This is an unvarnished look at life on the wrong side of the poverty line, where a dead cat can be the difference between dinner and starvation. Néspolo does a good job of toeing the line between realism and exploitation, making you feel for the characters plight, without overstepping the line into voyeurism.

The dialogue is mostly strong here, breathing life into the slum-dwellers. The English translator, Frank Wynne, has mostly done a good job, retaining local slang such as loco and socio, rather than substituting English equivalents. This good work is occasionally undercut, however, by the jarring use of British colloquialisms like wanker and bang out of order.

The story is, for the most part, compelling, especially in the first half of the book where I was rushing from page to page to see what would happen next. Unfortunately things do fall apart a little towards the end when, for example, during the climactic action, Gringo takes a break to discuss the literary merits of Moby Dick with a virtual stranger.

Ah yes, Moby Dick. For some reason, of which even he himself seems unsure, Gringo purchases a copy of Moby Dick early in the story, then proceeds to read it at intervals, punctuating the action. It feels like this was being built up to have some greater metaphorical significance, but unfortunately this never really materialises, except, perhaps, in the narrator's contempt for Moby Dick's narrator, Ishmael. Ishmael's over-description (in Gringo's opinion) of peripheral details about the life of a nineteenth century whaler makes him want to end the little fucker. Such over-description is certainly not an issue in Néspolo's novel, with relatively little time being spent on the mundane details of slum life.

Sadly, for me, that is Seven Ways to Kill a Cat's real downfall. Surely, to the overwhelming majority of people reading this book, life in a Buenos Aires slum will be totally alien? This, indeed, is half the appeal of a book like this. I wanted to come away with a strong sense of what it is to live on the streets where the Gringos and Chuecos of Buenos Aires walk. Instead the backdrop feels colourless and lacking in texture. The allusions to Moby Dick suggest this approach was a conscious one by the author, but personally I feel it was a mistake, robbing Seven Ways to Kill a Cat of much of the novelty and imaginative engagement it might otherwise have possessed.

This is a novel that had a lot going for it and kept me hooked for a good two-thirds of its length. It's just a shame it lost me beyond this point. Perhaps if Néspolo had attempted to connect the organised crime in the slums to the countries greater economic woes, he might have found a more satisfying conclusion. Instead the end felt oddly random and tacked on, devoid of any emotional significance and, ultimately, rather hollow. There was half a great novel here, I just wish the other half had been there too.

If this book appeals then you might like to try:

The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martinez
No-one Loves a Policeman by Guillermo Orsi

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Buy Seven Ways to Kill a Cat by Matias Nespolo at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Seven Ways to Kill a Cat by Matias Nespolo at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Seven Ways to Kill a Cat by Matias Nespolo at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Seven Ways to Kill a Cat by Matias Nespolo at Amazon.com.

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