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Matadora

by Elizabeth Ruth

What does it mean to be a woman? To be alive? In her audacious third novel, Elizabeth Ruth examines such grand, universal questions through an historically specific mise-en-scène.

Set in the days before the Spanish Civil War, Matadora centres on a poor girl who dares to defy the constraints of her gender and class by pursuing a very uncommon vocation as a female matador. Luna Caballero Garcia, whose mother died in childbirth, is a household servant to the wealthy Andalusian Garcia clan, famed for training champion bullfighters. Despised by the household matriarch, Luna is drawn to brothers Manuel and Pedro. Though Manuel would rather craft poems than wave a red cape, and Pedro cares for little more than personal gratification, the brothers begin to secretly train her when mettlesome Luna reveals her passion.

Their efforts lead them to Mexico where, unlike Spain, women are permitted to fight bulls on foot, not merely on horseback. Luna wishes to be confirmed in her craft on home soil, even if it means breaking convention and the law, and the trio returns to Spain. With right-wing forces battling the government, it’s a dangerous time to be a Spaniard, let alone an outlaw woman bullfighter.

Ruth excels at writing about violence and sex. The scenes in the bullring are technically precise and vividly portrayed, capturing the passion of the aficionados in the stands, as well as the ritualistic tango between toro and torero that usually ends with spilled blood. The erotic scenes, which include queer trysts of both male and female varieties, are earthy and rich.

With strong prose and thematic sophistication, Matadora marries dynamic storytelling and a provocative meditation on power, pleasure, and identity. While the novel’s omniscient narration lends itself to exposition, and instances of bald foreshadowing ensure that significant plot points are easily predicted, Ruth still allows for some suspense, keeping several key developments under wraps until finally springing them on the reader. This includes the novel’s bravura ending, which is quite simply stunning.