Palabras envenenadas essentially revolves around the difficult family relationships between an adolescent girl and her parents, and in tandem, the friendship ties which are established between the protagonist and her closest friend since infancy. Those themes, which flower on the surface, veil the intense subject at the heart of the novel: the sexual abuse of minors at home and in school. However, nothing in Palabras envenenadas seems lurid. Maite Carranza has been able to find the right tone when tackling such sensitive issues by highlighting the feelings of guilt, domination, and deception, and the hurtfulness of words, the poisoned words that produce cowardly silences, because society tends to cover its eyes when dealing with unassailable relationships such as those between teachers and students and parents and children. The pillar on which the novel rests is consequently the denunciation of childhood sexual abuse, its devastating consequences, and its invisibility in a world trained by custom to assume only the best when the reality is a web of lies, secrets, deceptions, and false appearances.
Palabras envenenadas begins on the day of the 19th birthday of Barbara Molina, a girl who disappeared in strange circumstances four years earlier and whose case has been very frustrating for Police Inspector Salvador Lozano, who has not been able to forget it in spite of the passage of time. It seemed like a normal enough day except that it was the last day of work for Lozano before his retirement from the force, but everything changes when, Barbara, long presumed dead, calls her former best friend Eva Carrasco and pleads for help and then is abruptly cut off. This call will shed more light on the case, uncover old secrets, eliminate suspects, and unmask a man who has been pretending for a long time. Barbara was a pretty and intelligent girl, with a seemingly bright future, but who comes back from a vacation totally changed, with a strange demeanor and rebellious with everyone, and failing all her school subjects. Her mother, Nuria Solis, notices some things, like the birth control pills her daughter is taking, and on one occasion cuts and bruises on Barbara’s arms and wrist, but decides to accept her daughter’s explanations and covers for her. Her father takes the opposite approach and imposes strict measures to halt his daughter’s increasingly peculiar and wild conduct.
However, under the appearance of an austere and concerned father lies the reality of a perverted man who repeatedly sexually assaults his daughter and in order to do so subjects her to manifold physical abuses and mental cruelties. Dismayed by those practices and full of fear, Barbara runs away from home, but her father catches up with her and imprisons her in a basement hideaway at their old country home. There he keeps her barely alive for four years to satisfy his whims and perversions. In spite of all, Barbara still harbors some hopes of escaping but He (we know the kidnapper throughout the story only by this capitalized personal pronoun) makes her the unwilling causer of every misfortune. Police inspector Lozano, an upright and very human man, knows that there is something in the story that he’s missing, and after unearthing some last minute clues, Eva Carrasco gives him the last piece of the puzzle. Barbara’s father has inadvertently left his cell phone in the hiding place and she has managed to call Eva and utter a cry for help before she is cut off. This call will save her life and change the destiny of all those involved in the story.
The climax of the plot, the resolution of the disappearance of Barbara Molina, transpires in approximately twenty-four hours. As such, the novel is closely linked with the chronicle genre, since the narrator presents what happens on the day in question in the words of the protagonists themselves. The novel is framed, therefore, in the present, although there are many temporal digressions which allow the reader to learn the fundamental aspects of a kidnapping that lasts four years.
The novel is set in Barcelona and it environs, with abundant references to place names around the city. However, more important to the reader are the contrasts between closed and open spaces that appear throughout the text. For example, Barbara is confined to the cellar in her family’s vacation home, but constantly evokes her summers in Bilbao when she sails the open sea with her uncle. Furthermore, the only thing she asks her kidnapper is to let her see the light of day, something which he allows her to do on a few occasions and always from inside the car. In this way, the representation of closed spaces parallels the life characters trapped in their own physical and mental cages: Barbara in her cellar and Nuria in her Barcelona flat which is also a kind of tomb, since she has been more dead than alive since her daughter’s disappearance.
As we have said, the reader is a witness to the police investigation of the disappearance which took place four years earlier and which is reopened because the inspector in charge of the case is about to retire. Palabras envenenadas reads like detective story or crime thriller, with a rapid rhythm which the impels to keep reading to find out what happens.
The chronicle of that day in which Salvador Lozano finally resolves the case of the disappearance is structured in twenty-eight chapters which focus alternatively on the main characters of the novel. For this reason, each chapter is titled simply with the name of the character which forms its subject. And it this framework which makes the novel attractive, for Maite Carranza has been able to get into the head of the characters and disclose their interior monologues, so that the reader may understand what they are living through. In addition, the twenty-eight chapters are divided into three parts. With this tripartite structure, the author gives the novel a touch of the traditional story consisting of initial conflict, exposition and denouement. The alternating protagonists also imply alternating narrative voices. The novel is narrated in third person for all characters, except for Barbara Molina, for whom the first person is reserved, perhaps to underscore that she can only talk to herself because she has no contact with anyone. However, the thoughts of the characters often appear in the first person, interspersed as interior monologues. The play of perspectives is further enhanced when a single event is narrated according to the vision of different characters.
Maite Carranza writes without hesitancy about a thorny issue which could easily become sordid, but she does not seek sensationalism, but rather truth and denunciation. As such, she does not provide scabrous details in scenes which could be horrifying, but rather outlines them, and concentrates instead on the psychology of the characters, who are memorably portrayed. We come to know Barbara, we accompany her in her predicament and we feel as impotent as she does. We really appreciate Inspector Lozano and we are optimistic that he will solve the case before he retires. We understand Eva and her doubts and vacillations and we wish her nerve to add two and two. And finally, we give Nuria support and encouragement, and we whisper in her ear that it is she and she alone who must protect Barbara.
The one drawback to the novel lies with its editing. There are numerous typographical errors such as “The dog is died” and “Bloombsbury”. The narrative is full of dialogue rendered verbatim, and which although for the most part plausible, is not marked off by any punctuation. This tends to confuse the reader, who at times may wonder just who is saying what. But those problems, as well as references that only a Spanish readership would know, could be fixed in any translation into English.