Review: Newborn by Agustin Maes

Guest Review by Hayli May Cox

Newborn Review

Certain events in our histories have the power to eclipse all else that might … shine through, and the past three years have cast a long shadow. This soft, shimmering light of a book is Agustin Maes debut novella and is one such obscured work which deserves attention. We begin with two young boys at the edge of a creek where they routinely catch tadpoles, only this time they are confronted with the traumatic discovery of a deceased newborn. Acting as our steady and mellow guide, the book unfolds to reveal the truth of the baby’s conception and quick demise. Maes persistently confronts us with what we turn away from as we might turn away from a bright stab of sun, forcing us not only to understand what we may have thought to be unthinkable, but also to see the scintillating beauty that can exist alongside deep and nauseating pain. I found myself simultaneously unable to put the book down and afraid to turn the page, deeply affected by the unfiltered and tender portrait of humanity the novella paints. Maes’s prose is both darkly compelling mystery and painting en plein air, each line crafted to build landscapes both internal and external which showcase the intimate connections and small wonders that emerge out of even the darkest scenes.

In Maes’s hands, time and space are elastic. Light obscures and illuminates, guides our eyes to the next scene and to the intimate connections that everywhere exist. Secrets of heart and history are uncovered bit by bit—a diamond ring at the bottom of a reservoir, photo albums and pornographic magazines tucked in shadowed places, a blood-streaked teen wandering in the early morning hours, memories and confessions which leak out of tired bodies, another kind of blood on the hands of two young men. In just over 100 pages, we come to understand the characters more deeply than the book’s size might suggest. Swept up in the urgency of the unfurling and compelled by the characters Maes conjures, we find compassion and even love for the person responsible for this central calamity. 

A creek winds toward the Pacific Ocean and through the heart of the novella and, like the inevitable rise and fall of the sun, links the characters together over miles and decades. Maes shows us how some memories and images move in and with us, clear as ever, refusing to yield as we move through our lives. Aged and grown, one of the boys who discovered the body is returned to the memory by a fishbowl of tadpoles. A young girl stares into the reflective eyes of a cat and remembers another, for, as Maes writes, “memories come unbidden and are permitted right of entry no matter how unwelcome; things neither good nor bad but always both.” We see how trauma can be both inherited and catching, and we witness the strength and grit the characters cultivate in order to carry on. Rather than competing, the awful mystery and keen perception combine to form a darkly dazzling read. 

Maes’s first book reaches beyond its brevity—its contents so condensed as to burst out into the world. By the end, we ourselves are caught up in the constant rush and change the novella portrays. Like the ever-present creek, we too are at once the same and entirely new, a constant and muted witness. Newborn is for anyone who knows trauma, anyone who has wished to unsee or unknow, for anyone who understands what it is to live and love complexly, and for those with an insatiable desire to understand and make something of darkness. 

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