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I bought Cuaderno de faros on something of a whim. I’d been wanting to read it, obviously, but it wasn’t until last year when I went to see Jazmina Barrera in conversation with Eula Biss at the Centro Cultural Elena Garro that I decided to bite the bullet. Naturally, it was because I wanted to get it signed and when else was I going to have the chance? (I got it signed, because of course I did.)
It’s always satisfying when snap decisions pay off though, and Cuaderno de faros became one of my favourite books of 2020 (even though it was originally published back in 2017). And for a year in which it feels like we’ve all been collectively dropped at the edge of the world and left to stare into an interminable void – maybe it’s just me? — there was something both comforting and perverse about reading a collection of essays on lighthouses, those most immovable of objects which stand on the edge of their very own oceanic abyss.
Cuaderno de faros is a slim collection containing just six essays, a series of interconnected ruminations on Barrera’s ‘collection’ of lighthouses, both real and fictional. It’s one you could easily get through in an afternoon, although it’s worth taking the time – or, in my case, making the rare effort – to pause and digest each one.
From Portland to Puerto Escondido, Barrera blends first-person travel narratives with historical context and an abundance of literary allusions — she even references having read Sir Walter Scott’s diaries at one point, which, to me, sounds like the very definition of a nightmare — and each essay takes us to the border between land and sea to contemplate the bastions which mark the divide: lighthouses. And yet, as Barrera meanders through digressions, making those literary detours and historical pitstops, lighthouses become merely the soft-focus setting for quiet revelations, rather than the sharp focus stars. On Lighthouses is about collecting, considering, questioning.
The fragmented nature of her prose threw me at first – it felt a little awkward and I wasn’t sure whether it was working. But once I began to understand the rhythm of Barrera’s writing, things fell into place. (It’s worth noting here that I read Cuaderno de faros in Spanish, although there’s now an English-language edition — On Lighthouses — translated by the excellent Christina Macsweeney.) Oh, and don’t be thrown off by my use of the word ‘fragmented’ — I know it can more often than not be a dogwhistle for ‘experimental prose that I must pretend to understand’, but that’s not the case here.
Cuaderno de faros isn’t flashy (the irony) or packed with pop culture references (again, Walter Scott is referenced more than once) but that’s exactly what I liked about it. In the opening pages, Barrera writes that she’s a failed collector, a childhood accumulator of quartz in many forms and an adult hoarder of books she’ll never have time to read. Relatable! While her fixation on lighthouses may seem unusual to some, her admissions are reassuringly normal. And despite a clear dedication to deeply researched facts and more lighthouse info than I assumed I’d ever care to learn, the presence of a compelling first-person thread throughout means you never feel like you’re reading a textbook masquerading as an essay.
Yes, this is a collection of essays about travel and movement and discovery, all of which feel like a distant memory for most of us now. But it’s also one about stillness, consideration and objects which weather the storm. The terrible 2020-appropriate comparisons draw themselves.
Buy On Lighthouses: Bookshop.org | Indiebound
About Jazmina Barrera
Jazmina Barrera (Mexico City, 1988) is an author, essayist and co-founder of Ediciones Antílope, with a degree in Creative Writing from NYU.
Other Books by Jazmina Barrera: Foreign Body/ Cuerpo extraño (Literal Publishing, 2013), Linea nigra (Almadía, 2020), Punto de cruz (Almadía, 2021)