‘Now we make you ugly, my mother said.’ Ladydi is a young girl being raised by her mum in a remote part of Mexico near Alcapulco. Every aspect of Ladydi’s life – her friends, community, school – have been ravaged by drugs. If the Netflix drama Narcos gives us a perspective on the life of one of the world’s most successful cocaine traffickers, Prayers for the Stolen presents the localised impact of the drugs trade. Narcos‘ depiction of Pablo Escobar’s life was all about sex and drugs and violence but, at the centre of the story were the very rich men who made bad things happen to other people; these men wielded the control. None of the characters in Prayers of the Stolen, least of all the women, have any ability to control events around them- the most they can do is pretend their daughters are boys and ‘make them ugly’ to try and prevent the traffickers stealing them away in their black SUVs.
There isn’t a single man in Ladydi’s village; each one has either migrated to the US or been caught up in the drugs trade. The women do their best to protect what’s left – their daughters. They have dogs to warn them of intruders; they dig holes to hide the girls in; they blacken the girls’ teeth and cut their hair. But these aren’t fail-safe. Meanwhile, the teenage girls know from experience exactly what to do, for instance, when the authorities drop the poison Paraquat on the village, and their friend, instead of the poppy fields because the officials have been paid off by the drug dealers. In this first part of the novel, Ladydi’s story-telling is a muddle, as you can imagine a young adolescents’ story-telling to be. Her timelines and memories are often out of sequence and we learn of her life through her stream of consciousness. Despite the grim backdrop though, there is a childishness acceptance of her fate; a non-judgmental recounting of events, and a longing for her father.
The second half of the story is a much more linear account of Ladydi’s life when she moves to Acapulco to become a house maid. Here the story takes a turn that at the time seems unexpected, but in hindsight is the inevitable next episode of Ladydi’s life trajectory.
Ultimately, this is a story about women and the damage that men can do to women, on a personal as well as global scale. Jennifer Clement has done a remarkable job in presenting a really engaging narrative, based on interviews with Mexican women, about the impact of the drugs trade and human trafficking in particular. Moreover, she has cleverly woven humour and really likeable characters into the pathos, which means that despite its bleak story, the book is a hugely gratifying read.
When it comes to stories about the drugs trade or the ‘war on drugs’, women generally do not feature. If they do, they are ‘mules’ or prostitutes or only very slightly complicit in the male machinations going on around them. Importantly, Prayers for the Stolen shows us what it means to be poor and a women and living on the periphery of the drugs trade. And it reminds us that whilst women are often pawns or collateral damage in the global context, they do retain some agency over their fates and they can take action to regain control over their lives.