The Spanish Riveter: Book? Book. Book! A concise review of Sara Mesa by Brian Wood

A few years back I was having drinks with a writer friend. He’s wildly accomplished, and (even though he deserves it) annoyingly praised. I asked him about blurbs. He was constantly being asked to blurb books and often lamented about being buried in them. I asked how he cranked so many of them out. He laughed and told me his secret.

‘You either say, “Now that’s a writer.” Or you say, “Now that’s a book.”’ 

‘That’s it?’

‘I switch it up depending on my mood, but yeah. That’s kind of it.’ 

If you pull a book from the shelf and read the quote on the dust jacket, what would you find? Maybe there’s a few jazzy words sprinkled in, but it’ll either tell you how the author is a writer or how the author has written a book. 

I chuckled at this revelation and told him book reviews were just as bad. I don’t write a lot of them, but I read more than I care to admit. And I’ve found that most book reviews could be distilled to three words:

Book?

Book.

Book!

Much like his blurb formula, you either have:

I’m not sure about this one.

Sure, it worked I guess.

Or:

Damn – you’ve got to read this.

Just like the blurbs, the reviewer chooses which ‘book’ they’re going to use, dredge it in some literary terms, pull a few choice lines from the manuscript for support, and voilá. The review.

My friend told me it was stupid idea – three words, the same word, to describe everything ever written, but that it was also kind of smart. I should do something with it. Of course, me being me, I sat on it and did nothing, too embarrassed to share it with anybody else. But that was then. With the world on fire and the seeming shortage of water – fuck it. We’ve all got places to be.

If you’re short on time here it is: Sara Mesa writes books!

Sara Mesa is a Spanish writer and poet that should be on your radar. She’s young, talented, humble, and publishes outstanding work at a steady rate. If you’re a writer, she’s totally annoying. Currently, Sara Mesa has four titles translated into the English: the novels Between the Hedges, Four by Four, and Scar, as well as the story collection Bad Handwriting. I’m not exaggerating when I say they’re all books!

What I love about Mesa’s work is how she tackles big, scary subjects – abstractions like Power, Control, Patriarchy, Protection – with simple, unadorned prose. The lines are fiercely simple and terse. But they are tightly coiled and explosive. As the material becomes heavier, Sara Mesa delivers cleaner and lighter lines. Her work exemplifies the wonderful advice James Baldwin gave in an interview with The Paris Review, a line I keep on a Post-it note behind my computer: ‘Write a sentence as clean as bone.’ Mesa strips her prose down to its essential elements, making us feel and participate in her stories, rather than just sit back and observe. In her story ‘Cattle Tyrants’ – a disturbingly apt title – a group of boys terrorise and attack a young girl walking home. It’s a heavy, loaded scene. Mesa lets us marinate in dread when she describes the boys as having ‘smooth smiles’ and ‘mouths hungry for cruelty’. Clean and simple, stripped to the bone. But juxtaposed with the terror and violence of the material – the lines smack with a wallop. 

In her ‘now that’s a writer’ blurb, Laura van den Berg points to Mesa’s sharp lines. She says, ‘Mesa’s sentences are clear as glass.’ I couldn’t agree more. In George Orwell’s essay, ‘Why I Write’, he shares, ‘Good prose is like a window pane’. Prose should be so clean we look through it, don’t notice it. We shouldn’t notice the glass but the world on the other side of it, beyond it. Look all you want, but Mesa can’t be found on the page. There’s only the image, the horrors on the other side of the glass. In fact, Mesa’s writing is so sharp that (even though she deserves it) when she uses a word like ‘inchoate’, it feels out of place, it grates against the cleanliness that surrounds it. One word in a story. She’s that good.

Another aspect that I admire in Sara Mesa’s work is how her lines impact the oddness of the world. Kids in cages. A girl who observes the world behind a hedge. Love and obsession via internet forums. Mesa’s worlds are troubled, dangerous and strange. But because of her clean, sharp lines, she imposes logic on the oddity of these worlds. When an innocent girl is attacked, she questions if she can be truthful with the women in her life. Will anybody support her? ‘What to tell the aunts? What to tell them?’ Or simple lines like: ‘Brazen women tend to lie.’ The double standard of being strong and feminine in a male-dominated landscape. 

The hallmark of a good line is when it imposes its logic on the weirdness of life. At the height of the heroin-chic model craze, someone asked supermodel Kate Moss how she stayed so dangerously thin. ‘Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.’ It makes you shudder. But for better or worse, it’s powerful. It’s a line that works. Mesa does the same throughout her work. Take her novel Four by Four. How do we investigate boundaries, borders, walls? The detritus and decay of civilisation? Our false sense of protection? Mesa uses clean lines that force their logic. ‘Politics don’t exist in the city.’ (Come on Mesa, of course they exist.) ‘Or at least the inhabitants aren’t aware of the existence of politics.’ (Well … okay.) ‘The existence of something comes into being only through the awareness that it exists.’ (Oh.) ‘That’s why.’

The power in Mesa’s work comes from the tension between the ease of her phrasing and the shock of its thought hitting your mind. If she added more, she’d limit our imagination. But the terse nature of her lines lets the idea slink from the page and burrow into our brain. 

Sara Mesa’s deft control and economy of language shouldn’t come as a surprise. She’s a poet. Her nouns are razored. Her verbs are explosive. And she fixes her eye on imagery that illuminates the horrific abstractions I’d like to pretend did not exist. She makes you aware. If you haven’t read her, you should. She won’t waste your time.

Because Sara Mesa is a writer.  

She writes books!

Brian Wood


Read The Spanish Riveter here or order your paper copy from here.

Buy books from The Spanish Riveter through the European Literature Network’s The Spanish Riveter bookshop.org page.


Scar, translated by Adriana Nodal-Tarafa, Dalkey Archive Press (2017)

Four by Four, translated by Katie Whittemore, Open Letter (2020)

Among the Hedges, translated by Megan McDowell, Open Letter (2021)

Bad Handwriting, translated by Katie Whittemore, Open Letter (2022)

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