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Heart of Tango by Elia Barceló

August 7, 2011

Natalia is to be married to a German sailor much older than herself, but two days before the wedding she meets Diego, a mysterious young dancer, and they fall immediately in love. When he serenades her on the eve of the ceremony, Natalia’s father unwittingly invites him to the festivities. There they dance a tango charged with passion, before Diego vanishes, knowing she is lost to him. 

Soon after the marriage Natalia’s father dies, and her husband is lost at sea, presumed dead. Penniless and alone, Natalia is persuaded to become a dancer in a tango hall. Diego discovers her there and vows to bring her away from this existence, but their reunion has devastating consequences. Many years later, the spirit of the dance and the lovers’ longing for each other draws together two strangers in a haunting meeting, a fusion of time and identities, despair and hope.


Heart of Tango by Elia Barceló is a new novella translated from the Spanish by David Frye. I expected to adore this book as I have a little passion for books set inSouth America, with a particular admiration for the great Gabriel Garcia Marquez. However, this novella didn’t quite have the impact on me that I wanted it to have.

There are several narrators in this story; Natalia and Diego in 1920s Buenos Aires are the main characters, but scattered throughout their story are scenes set in what I’m guessing is the present day, with a young couple discovering the Tango through Natalia and Diego’s story. At first, this switching of narrators is really confusing and I don’t think I really worked out what was going on until the very end, which you may say is a good thing, and I guess in some ways it is. But it can be very irritating when you have no idea who you’re reading about!

Natalia is the highlight of the story for me. She’s young, living with her ailing father who knows he won’t be around for much longer. He is eager to see her married before he departs the world, and in comes El Rojo – a German sailor very much her senior. He seems like a nice man and promises to take care of Natalia and make her happy, but the reality is she doesn’t love him, and she cannot help but feel that she is failing her late mother who married solely for love. Not long before Natalia is due to be married, she meets Diego, a young Tango dancer who instantly captures her heart. The two feel a growing passion for the other but Natalia’s wedding is imminent and she must accept her fate and submit to her husband-to-be. At Natalia’s wedding she meets Diego on the dance floor and the two share a Tango filled with passion and lust, creating a memory that will haunt the rest of their lives, one that will ultimately plant the seed of doubt in El Rojo’s mind and lead to devastating consequences.

What I loved most about this story was Natalia as a character and her life as a woman in 1920sBuenos Aires. The fact that she only has her father to depend on in life, and with his health constantly deteriorating, there is the worry that she will end up alone, having to try and fend for herself with whatever measly job she is able to get being a woman, which certainly won’t pay much. Without a mother to explain the ways of love to her, Natalia is also very vulnerable and innocent when it comes to sexual relations with men. She has no idea what to expect and no one to ask, but she knows it is her duty as a woman and a wife, to fulfil her husbands needs.

Of course there are some really beautiful descriptions of the Tango, as you would expect, and even though I’m not a dancer, I did feel transported to this era when Tango was raw and passionate, rather than something that ultimately feels quite staged these days. At times, Barceló can go a little over the top and make it something it’s not, something a little too over-romanticised for my liking. When I received this book from the publisher, this was certainly my first worry – that it would all be a little bit too cheesy and not realistic enough. Barceló can pull it off, and she does so throughout most of the book, but like I said there are times when it does become a little too much.

The other worry with this book is that it would be very predictable. What else would you expect about a story of two lovers dancing the Tango? But luckily Barceló does include a couple of twists I didn’t quite see coming, and that definitely made the story more interesting. However, like I said earlier, the confusing switches between narratives just weren’t clear enough. I feel the addition of a date at the beginning of those chapters would definitely have helped! I can appreciate that Barceló was trying to do something different, but it just didn’t work, for me at least. The ending is also very surprising and I did put the book down asking myself many a question. It’s a strange ending and I’m still not sure if I liked it or not, in some way it seemed a little bit silly, but I just can’t seem to form a more resolute opinion on it, so you will have to read it yourself to find out!

This is a very enjoyable read, and no doubt if you love dancing or literature set in South America, then I’m sure you will appreciate this just that little bit more. It’s not a masterpiece, or even something that will stay with you, but it is the perfect escape, and that’s what books are all about at the end of the day isn’t it?

Heart of Tango is out now, published by MacLehose Press, an imprint of Quercus – thanks goes to them for sending me a copy to review!



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