Bennedith, age 45, a Swedish writer, arrives in a sweltering Madrid to begin a writer’s grant. After settling into the two-bedroom apartment on calle Goya where she will be living, she ventures out to a bar. Sipping her glass of cava, she notices a man staring at her. Her dismissive manner does nothing to discourage him. He offers his hand and introduces himself, Mercuro Cano. Soon he’s asking if he can stay with her for a while. “Hide me,” he begs. “Just for a few days. You won’t regret it.” She refuses, but takes his phone number.
Bennedith, who writers newspaper columns, isn’t sure what she’s doing on this writer’s grant. Perhaps she needs to take this three month opportunity, all expanses paid, to be more adventurous. Throwing caution to the wind, the next morning she calls Mercuro and offers her spare room.
Later that day lounging at the pool, she’s captivated by an older couple. The husband, obviously in the throes of dementia, is being lovingly looked after by his wife. She’s so touched by witnessing this relationship that she introduces herself to the wife, Miranda, and offers her services at no charge to take care of the husband, Santiago. Initially suspicious, Miranda accepts Bennedith’s help. The next morning Bennedith arrives at the couple’s apartment to take up her duties. Not possessing Miranda’s patience, however, Bennedith mistreats Santiago and, despite her pleas to be forgiven, she’s dismissed.
Mercuro arrives at the apartment and tells Bennedith why he lives in fear for his life. Even though he loves his wife, Soledad, he had an affair with Penelope. Soledad’s heart is suffering two blows, one sustained from Mercuro’s infidelity, the other from a cardiac condition that is killing her. Without a heart transplant, she will die. Why, she thinks, should she die while her unfaithful husband continues to enjoy times with his mistress? For her revenge, she reaches out to Miss Pink and Mr. Blue, hosts of “Carnality,” a reality show that professes to help people, but like so much on the dark web, humiliates many who appear, resulting in high ratings and profits.
Soledad tells her story on the show and the audience’s comments extend her sympathy. Mercuro, still hoping to reconcile with Soledad, agrees to appear. The hosts are tough with him, but his real fear comes from witnessing Lucia, the mysterious nun with a deformed thumb, who lurks in the background. Mercuro realizes he is being portrayed as the villain and there’s little hope Soledad will forgive him. What follows, however, is truly shocking, leaving him to flee for his life.
Lina Wolff’s novel, translated from the Swedish by Frank Perry, may be set in the present, but exudes a medieval atmosphere. For what is the dark web, really, but a modern day form of torture that goes back centuries? Mercuro didn’t face lions in the coliseum, but an angry mob in the Ethernet.
Lucia is the most complex character in the novel and once she begins to tell her story, in letters written to Bennedith, she becomes less mysterious and more sympathetic. As an older nun, ignorant of the power of the web, she allows herself to be manipulated by younger people she trusts. In the end, she attempts to redeem herself and help those who have been hurt with mixed results.
Translated by Frank Perry
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