The title is indeed appropriate. There is no way out for Colombian Isabel Velasco, protagonist of this true story. In 1990 her husband is murdered after defying an extortionist gang. The young widow perseveres, running the family’s cattle ranch and raising her child. Fast forward to 2010: Isabel is a seasoned businesswoman, son Daniel a college student, and FARC a menacing presence in their rural region. Local guerilla leader Gregorio kidnaps Daniel, demanding an astronomical ransom. Isabel’s attempts to negotiate prove fruitless, actually making matters worse: when she meets with el comandante in his mountain retreat, he takes a dislike to this courageous, articulate woman. Also fruitless are other efforts to secure Daniel’s freedom: whether she is dealing with the military, a kidnapping task force, politicians, or NGOs Isabel encounters fear, incompetence, corruption, bureaucracy. Along with empty promises, the best anyone can offer is therapy. Not too helpful when a psychologist says “none of this is your fault” as this mother pictures her son chained and cold and scared. Her solace is in work, religious faith, and family solidarity.
After eight harrowing months, Daniel is freed, following a fortuitous escape and rescue maneuver. Gregorio vows to destroy Isabel’s family, has her brother killed and her country home burned. Relatively safe in Bogotá, Isabel exists in a limbo of boredom and fear, still receiving ominous messages from FARC and estranged from relatives angry that her failure to pay the ransom has endangered them. In 2012, action—two guerillas are indicted for Daniel’s kidnapping. Isabel makes a sad, scary road trip back to her rural region to testify at the trial. Leaving the courtroom, she learns she is in imminent danger. Soldiers whisk her onto a plane. Flying back to Bogotá, Isabel gazes out the window, wondering what the future holds.
Incredible story, worth telling. Unfortunately, author Salud Hernández-Mora, eyewitness to many of these events and with access to Isabel’s diaries, has not handled her material well. An experienced reporter who has written on the Colombian conflict for 15 years, she chose to turn Isabel’s story into a novel hoping the reader would be drawn in and identify with the main character. But the novel form is foreign to Hernández-Mora, as she herself admits in an interview in the Bogotá daily El Tiempo (“I have no literary bent”).
With the opening sentence of Sin salida, “Upon awakening, he thinks of his son and feels an overwhelming urge to hug him,” the reader enters the realm of women’s fiction in the pejorative sense. There is constant reiteration of Isabel’s love for her husband and son, and a long banal recounting of the early days of widowhood (irrelevant to the kidnapping story), to mention but a few of the tale’s overwrought strands.
Dialogue abounds. Each phone conversation with a bureaucrat, each chat with a cousin is recreated. All speakers have the same plodding, wooden voice, their thoughts and feelings described in advance: before Isabel opens her mouth, the reader knows she has a knot in her stomach, a lump in her throat, rage in her heart. Other novelistic elements are handled with equal awkwardness: point of view gyrates wildly, flashbacks are confusing or jarring.
There are moments of fine reporting (the courtroom scene, for one). But the reader longs for more such and wishes Hernandez-Mora had used her considerable journalistic skills to craft a different book. As it stands, the impact of the events is smothered under page after page of amateurish fiction.
In the same El Tiempo article, Hernandez-Mora explains that she has written for a specific audience—Colombians unaware of the extent to which the lengthy guerilla war has destroyed families and affected the fabric of society. That creates problems when a wider readership is sought. The reader of an English-language version whose knowledge of Colombia stops at the drug trade and Ingrid Betancourt would have countless unanswered questions about Colombian history, politics, culture, and geography.