The Dark Side of Memory is Tessa Bridal’s latest release since the her highly acclaimed novel The Tree of Red Stars. A thoroughly researched and deeply personal narrative nonfiction book, The Dark Side of Memory chronicles the military take over and proceeding dictatorship of Uruguay, Argentina, and other neighboring Latin American countries in the mid-1970s-1980s.
Bridal, born and raised in Uruguay, returns to her home country to interview survivors and investigate the dozens of disappearances (most of them children) reported during this era. Through a storied retelling of these interviews, Bridal paints a scene of Uruguay and Argentina that feels both apocalyptic and eerily familiar.
To set the scene: a small subset of the population, mostly comprised of the military and with military backing, take over the civilian community. This militaristic government determines (largely in regards to political leaning) who is an enemy and who is not. Over time, being an enemy of the state becomes synonymous with capture, torture, and often complete erasure.
Because of these atrocities, a generation of young revolutionaries suffered for their ideas and values, but another entirely innocuous and helpless generation suffered as well: the children of the opposition. After their parents were killed or imprisoned, these children were often put into orphanages, left at churches or firehouses, or adopted by the very people who participated in murdering those same children’s parents.
After the dictatorship is dissolved in 1985, few parents remained to look for their missing children, but the families and grandparents of those children did survive, and they looked ceaselessly for their loved ones. Tessa Bridal captures both the humanity and depravity wrapped up in a situation with impossible answers. By the end of the dictatorship, many of these children were nine-ten years old. They had lived whole lives with a family that wasn’t their own, living under a name that wasn’t their own. How would they feel to find out they’d been kidnapped? Lied to? That their birth parents were potentially killed or tortured by the people they called Mother and Father?
Already, fans of Margret Atwood will see a perverse amount of overlap with her postapocalyptic novel The Handmaid’s Tale, and rightfully so: Atwood has said numerous times she did not invent The Handmaid’s Tale, but rather used the inspiration of actual events happening around the world in the 1970s-1980s. But fans of Bruce Miller’s Hulu adaptation won’t be able to help but call to mind the episode when Hannah rebukes her birth mother and the main character, June, whom she has been separated from for years and whom Hannah doesn’t even remember any more. It’s a climactic moment in the show when viewers feel entirely hopeless: all of June’s work, all of her sacrifices, her unending love for her daughter seems lost when we realize Hannah loves her adopted family—a family that essentially kidnapped her. But what’s the right answer? Tear Hannah away from the people she calls her parents? Fill her with the terror of her own past and kidnapping? There doesn’t seem to be an easy answer in Miller’s show, and there was not an easy answer for the families portrayed in The Dark Side of Memory.
The unnerving similarities between this speculative novel and the reality of life in South America for many only a few decades ago may shock some, but Bridal reminds us to look at our own government in the United Stated: the separation of children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border, the lengths to which the U.S. went after 9/11 to protect our democracy, often at the cost of human rights—and the list goes on.
A terrifying, beautiful, and absolutely essential chronicle of a continent, a people, and an era often glossed over in our history lessons, The Dark Side of Memory is a must read. While you may have many of the facts at the outset of the novelization, that does not at all detract from the heightened emotions you’ll feel as you read Bridal’s account. It is riveting, heart wrenching, and almost entirely unbelievable.
Published by Invisible Ink in October 20201, The Dark Side of Memory by Tessa Bridal is available for purchase at your local independent bookstore.
Read more non-fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.
FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.