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book review

On the Edge is only the second of Spanish author Rafael Chirbe’s books to be translated into English.DANIEL REINHARDT/DPA

The original Spanish title of Rafael Chirbes's penultimate novel can be translated a few different ways. On the one hand, En la Orilla could become On the Shore – which makes sense, given the novel's setting in the small seaside town of Olba. But you could also go with, as Chirbes's translator Margaret Jull Costa has, On the Edge. This turns out to be an even better fit. The only characters who aren't teetering atop some kind of precipice in this tough, obsessive novel about post-recession Spain are the ones who've already jumped.

We open in 2010, on the beach, as a recently laid-off carpenter's assistant stumbles across a trio of corpses. Readers should get used to that scent of death and decay in their nostrils, because it isn't going anywhere. Olba is one of a thousand small towns that's been gutted by the financial crisis, its half-finished construction sites and garbage-filled lagoon seeming more like the new normal with each passing day. And, really, given enough perspective, what's so bad about a few anonymous bodies? It beats discarded plastic: "If you throw a corpse into the sea, you're doing the environment a favour, supplying food for the fish to nibble on with their small cold mouths."

That voice, by the way, belongs to Esteban, until recently the owner of said carpentry business and now an angry old man with a drifting moral compass. The bulk of the novel takes place inside Esteban's head as he tries to solve a mystery of his own, namely, who is responsible for the entire town's slide into what feels like a permanent recession? What far-off machinations, hatched abstractly by idiot millionaires and politicians, have trickled down onto his head (and so many others like him) and ruined their lives sight unseen? Or have they, somehow, brought all this upon themselves?

Chirbes wrote more than a dozen books, including an acclaimed fiction trilogy about post-war Spain and four volumes of essays, but so far just one – his 1988 debut novel Mimoun – has made it into English. And that was 20 years ago. (Chirbes died last year, of lung cancer, at the age of 66.) For most anglophones, On the Edge is the first chance to get acquainted with Chirbes's dense, winding prose, his slab-like paragraphs, and the way he threads disparate voices into an overwhelming chorus of poverty and anguish.

Esteban's internal monologue is broken up by a series of italicized passages where peripheral characters give dispatches from their unravelling lives. Some are fending off abusive spouses ("The prospect of widowhood has been woman's one great consolation"); others lose sleep over no longer being able to put juice boxes in their children's lunches. At every turn, Margaret Jull Costa's translation brings the same crisp, sharp precision to Chirbes's prose that readers have come to expect from her work with Javier Marias and Jose Saramago, among others.

Esteban's attention, meanwhile, is focused on a group of locals he plays cards with. The recession has hit them all, but, Chirbes argues, sometimes poverty doesn't so much unite people as it does divide them along further lines of suspicion. Esteban is, truly, dead broke – more broke than even his siblings and senile father know – and while giving potted biographies of each man around the table, from the con man to the bank manager to the international wine expert, he privately wonders whether they aren't each to blame for the town's collapse. Or, even worse, if they are secretly better off than they're leading on. "People are very ready to demand that others act responsibly," Esteban thinks. "Very keen to point out other people's obligations and very reluctant to take on their own."

If the novel has an overall sense of futility, that's entirely by design – what Valerie Miles, in her afterword, calls the novel's "centrifugal" force. Chirbes, nearing the end of his life, didn't see much in the way of redemption on the horizon, at least as long as capitalism still calls the shots. That might explain why, as On the Edge winds on, Esteban retreats into a handful of memories from childhood, before money turned everything into pain: his mother gently tying his scarf before school, or a proud family dinner of fish caught by Esteban himself – and pulled from waters not yet contaminated by suntan lotion and laundry detergent. Back in the present, old, angry, and fundamentally alone, Esteban finds the beach calling to him once more.

Michael Hingston is books columnist for the Edmonton Journal and author of The Dilettantes.