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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Death as a Side Effect

Ana María Shua

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To purchase Death as a Side Effect

Title: Death as a Side Effect
Author: Ana María Shua
Genre: Novel
Written: 1997 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 164 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Death as a Side Effect - US
La muerte como efecto secundario - US
Death as a Side Effect - UK
Death as a Side Effect - Canada
Death as a Side Effect - India
La muerte como efecto secundario - España
  • Spanish title: La muerte como efecto secundario
  • Translated by Andrea G. Labinger

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Our Assessment:

B : grim, somewhat limited dystopian slice

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Death as a Side Effect is set in a modern Argentina where public security has almost completely collapsed. The narrator, Ernesto, tries to travel only by armored taxi, and attacks on shops, institutions, and apartments are common. When a neighbor's apartment is attacked he just turns up the music and cowers in the bathroom until it is over; when he wants to walk out in the fresh air among his few options is joining in with the 'Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo' -- this once proud "international symbol of the struggle for justice and freedom" that has now "degenerated into just another tourist attraction."
       Ernesto is a talented make-up artist, though at the beginning of his account he earns good money as the would-be screenwriter for a wealthy director's grand (but unlikely to ever get filmed in the current conditions) project. Still under the thumb of a domineering father, his feelings of filial duty complicate his life when his father requires surgery for a growing intestinal blockage (that threatens to block him up entirely, so that his own shit would eventually blow him up). Among the novelties of this alternate-world Shua offers is that those who can not care for themselves any longer are shunted off to for-profit Convalescent Homes. These are now mandatory, and Ernesto's father would be sent off to one of these after any operation -- something both he and Ernesto want to avoid.
       Meanwhile, Ernesto's mother is quickly losing her mind (and she also winds up in a Convalescent Home), and he also has a sister. Among his few acquaintances is his neighbor, Margot, who is very actively trying to seduce him -- and even he wonders: "I myself don't understand why the plan hasn't produced the desired effect".
       One reason may be that he still harbors strong feelings for another: his married lover, to whom he addresses this account -- a woman so out of reach that she is a safe confessor.
       Ernesto's father defies the odds on survival, but after his operation is, of course, brought to a Convalescent Home. Ernesto works to spring him from it -- an almost impossible task, given how valuable patients are to these institutions. Even if a patient does escape, they are willing to go to great lengths to recapture them and bring them back home.
       Ernesto's manipulative father has many more tricks up his sleeve than Ernesto can foresee -- even after knowing the old man for so long -- and it is dad that gets the best of him and everyone else in the not-quite-happy ending. But things could be worse for Ernesto, who hasn't really gotten that far in his life. As he complains at one point:

Who was I ? What did I want ? What was I feeling ? What did your absence demolish, what did it leave still standing among my emotional possibilities ? What a temptation it was to become a sentimental tango figure, to determine once and for all that life is just an absurd wound.
       Shua's slice of dystopia focuses mainly on the institutionalized medical malpractice of the system in place there -- and the constant threat of violence (and the precautions taken because of it). Some of the scenes -- and Ernesto's make-up talent in action, whether fixing up a corpse or preparing guests for a grand costume party -- are very effective and impressive, but the novel as a whole offers only a very narrow picture (and little context -- of the social and/or political change that allowed for these changes). With Ernesto generally in over his head, the reader's guide is too hapless a fellow too.
       It makes for an interesting take of what might become of society, but overall Death as a Side Effect does fall somewhat short. (It probably did feel more immediate and powerful around the time of its writing, in the Argentina of 1997.)

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 January 2012

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Death as a Side Effect: Reviews: Ana María Shua: Other books by Ana María Shua under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Argentinean author Ana María Shua was born in 1951.

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