This Bestselling Novel Is Confronting Argentina’s Crisis of Violence Against Women

Dolores Reyes's magical realist fiction "Eartheater" sheds light on an all-too-real epidemic of femicide

Photo by University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment

On August 24, 2014, in the early hours of the morning, Melina Romero disappeared after celebrating her 17th birthday at a bowling alley in her hometown of Buenos Aires. Her body was found a month later in a nearby suburb, near a stream, wrapped in a trash bag. In Argentina, the crime was remarkable, in part, for how unremarkable it was—Romero’s rape and murder joined a long list of women brutally killed by men who were often their intimate partners, a crime known as femicide. Months after Melina’s death, the femicide crisis in Argentina would boil over into a countrywide catharsis of outrage.

Six years after Romero’s death, as the ongoing femicide crisis continues to roil Argentina, Eartheater (translated by Julia Sanches), a debut novel inspired by the crisis and written by the Argentinian writer and feminist activist Dolores Reyes, has become a surprise bestseller and injected new energy into efforts to end systemic partner violence in Argentina. Reyes dedicates the work to the memory of Melina Romero and Araceli Ramos—another victim of femicide—who were buried near the school near where she works, and to all victims and survivors of femicide. Since its publication in 2019, the novel has roiled the conversation around intimate partner violence and the continued unsolved murders of women in Argentina.

For Reyes, the story started during a writing workshop, where a colleague’s story included the phrase “the earth of the cemetery.” As she heard these words read aloud, Reyes had a vision of a slight young girl with long hair, crouching low to the ground, eating earth. It is a scene that also opens the novel: during her mother’s funeral, a teenage girl, known only as Eartheater, is so overcome with mourning that she begins to eat the dirt from her mother’s grave. “The earth devouring you is dark and tastes like tree bark,” she says. “It pleases me and reveals things and makes me see.” What she sees is a vision of her mother’s death—her father beating her mother.

Eartheater is bullied at school for her strange habit. When a teacher—Señorita Ana—goes missing, the girl eats earth from the school’s courtyard and has a vision during art class: “I’d drawn her as the earth had shown me: naked, her legs spread-eagle and kind of bent, so that she looked smaller, like a frog. Her hands were behind her, tied to the posts of an open warehouse with the words ‘PANDA JUNKYARD’ painted on it.” The drawing leads to a meeting with the school principal, and a search of the junkyard, where authorities find Señorita Ana’s body. Afterward, Eartheater’s aunt, her only caretaker, becomes so unnerved by this power that she abandons the girl and her brother, Walter. They drop out of school and, even as Eartheater tries to block out her discomfiting powers, bottles of earth start appearing in their front yard, each one left by a desperate person in search of a missing loved one.

Since its publication in 2019, the novel has roiled the conversation around intimate partner violence and the continued unsolved murders of women in Argentina.

Even amid a global crisis of intimate partner violence, particularly against women, the situation in Argentina stands out as especially dire. According to the United Nations, as of 2018, a woman is murdered every 32 hours in Argentina—often the culmination of weeks, months, and even years of daily abuse and violence. In 2015, after the heinous murder of a pregnant fourteen-year-old, Chiara Páez, who was beaten to death by her boyfriend and then buried in his grandparents’ yard, journalist Marcela Ojeda tweeted, “Actresses, politicians, business leaders, community leaders, are we not going to raise our voice? THEY ARE KILLING US.” In response to Ojeda’s tweet, protesters organized a march on the capitol in Buenos Aires. This small march grew into a protest of 200,000 women and a sweep of other national actions, all under the viral hashtag, rallying cry, and nascent social movement #NiUnaMenos (insisting on “Not One Less” woman kept alive). Spurred on by a machismo culture that condones the harassment and ill-treatment of women, ineffectual or apathetic handling of cases by the police, and weak and poorly applied laws against intimate partner violence, Ni Una Menos has grown into a broad-scale movement not only fighting for the eradication of femicide—and the full prosecution of its perpetrators—but also for greater enfranchisement for all Argentinian women, including the right to have access a safe and legal abortion. In Reyes’ novel, while a seismic social movement like Ni Una Menos is absent, the circumstances of it remains: unable to turn to politicians or the police to prevent these deaths or, in their aftermath, to find closure, the families of the missing women and children instead form their own network and process for seeking justice. In this case, their route runs through the supernatural powers of a teenage girl, who soon becomes the only recourse for the victims’ families.  

But despite being called upon to act, Eartheater is herself a resistant heroine. Initially overwhelmed by the pain and mourning from her own mother’s death, as well as the trauma caused by her previous visions, at first Eartheater simply ignores the jars and bottles of earth that appear. Each one bears a name and, sometimes, a picture of the missing, and as the jars accumulate she instead tries to wash away her guilt and suffering through familiar teenager methods: she drinks, plays video games, hooks up with boys, and buys cotton candy at the covered market . As she says, “Beer was a blanket hug that covered me from top to bottom.” She and her brother Walter, who live together in adown-and-out and impoverished suburb of Buenos Aires, both have a keen sense of their limited future—as orphans and dropouts, there is little to work for or aspire to besides enjoying each day as much as they can. Even so, desperate people continue to track Eartheater down and beg her to help find their missing loved ones and, eventually, she concedes.

There is a version of Reyes’ novel that one can imagine being well-suited to the streaming era: a paranormal police procedural where a young girl, who can commune with murdered women through eating earth, is paired with a swashbuckling cop and, together, they bring justice to the serial killers and domestic abusers of the world, one hour-long episode at a time. But in place of fantasy, Reyes’ novel is more hard-boiled, grittier, and embedded in the reality of a failing system. The cop she does fall in with, Ezequiel, is self-interested—only coming to her to help find his cousin—as well as disinterested in much more than himself . The people and bodies that Eartheater does find lead to little closure or justice. After she tells one family that their son, who has disappeared, was not kidnapped but instead died in an accident, the family refuses to believe her, the mother instead insisting, “I’m gonna tell the other women not to let the kids out on their own. Someone might steal ’em.”

There is a sense that Reyes’ novel is itself a warning against wish fulfillment.

There is a sense that Reyes’s novel is itself a warning against wish fulfillment, and while the stymied justice for these murders is a motivating factor for a movement like Ni Una Menos, the violence is itself the result of much deeper and more sinister cracks in the social fabric. Even if, like Eartheater, you could know who caused a woman’s disappearance or death, it is no guarantee of justice, and in Argentina, such disappearances continue to have a fraught and painful legacy. The country is still grappling with the history of one of the worst military regimes in South American history, infamous for the national reorganization process, el Proceso, that resulted in the disappearance and murder of over 30,000 people during the 1970s and ‘80s. In Eartheater, the grief of disappearance is palpable. As the girl examines her yard full of bottles, she realizes that “. . .no earth tasted alike. No child, sibling, mother, or friend was missed like another. Side by side, they were like glimmering tombs. At first, I used to count them and arrange them tenderly, occasionally stroking one till it let me savor the earth inside it. That was how I usually felt. But right then, I despised them. They weighed on me more than ever. Altogether, they exhausted me. I felt the bottles piling up on me. The world must be larger than I’d imagined for so many people to have disappeared in it.” In the end, the burden of this crisis falls not on the institutions meant to address it or the people meant to solve the crimes, but on a poor girl living in a poor neighborhood, the very sort of girl, perhaps like Melina Romero, at risk of disappearing herself.

As readers, we have a clear desire for justice in a novel about crime. We want to solve the case, and for the missing women and their families to have peace. But that is not the story that Reyes is telling. Throughout the novel, Eartheater continues to be haunted by the ghost of her former teacher, Señorita Ana, imploring her to keep searching. “What about me? What about everything you promised?” Ana says. To which Eartheater responds, “I don’t want to anymore, Ana.” Ana is insistent: “But you could find them. Have them locked up. For me. They’ll keep killing, out there. Don’t you get it?” But there is no resolve in Eartheater to keep going, no desire to fight crime and bring about justice. Instead, she and Walter flee the city, overwhelmed and fed up with what’s been asked of them. “I can’t deal with the people or the earth anymore,” she says. “I’m done with dead people.” As she finds—the power of knowing, of having an answer to the question, isn’t enough. Solving the crime, and even catching the criminal, isn’t enough, not in a society complicit to women’s suffering and with those in power failing to act. For Reyes, these are the things that can’t be solved by the supernatural, but instead only by a wild, full-throated roar for change.

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