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Nervous System

Translated into English by Megan McDowell

Ella is an astrophysicist struggling with her doctoral thesis in the “country of the present” but she is from the “country of the past,” a place burdened in her memory by both personal and political tragedies. Her partner, El, is a forensic scientist who analyses the bones of victims of state violence and is recovering from an explosion at a work site that almost killed him. Consumed by writer’s block, Ella finds herself wishing that she would become ill, which would provide time for writing and perhaps an excuse for her lack of progress. Then she begins to experience mysterious symptoms that doctors find undiagnosable.As Ella’s anxiety grows, the past begins to exert a strong gravitational pull, and other members of her family come into focus: the widowed Father, the Stepmother, the Twins, and the Firstborn. Each of them has their own experience of illness and violence, and eventually the systems that both hold them together and atomize them are exposed.

In this extraordinary clinical biography of a family, full of affection and resentment, dark humour and buried secrets, illness describes the traumas that can be visited not just upon the body, but on families and on the history of the countries—present and past—that we live in.


“Nervous System burns in the mind long after one has read it, not unlike the ghosts who circumnavigate our psyches, and the winding corridors of history, to hammer us on the head with the raw truth that time is not linear. The distance between the deep past and the present, Meruane shows, is much shorter than we might be inclined to think.”—The New York Times Book Review

“A postmodern meditation on how illness and loss forge connections . . . A complex, melancholy tale of a woman on the brink.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Razor-sharp. . . . On a sentence level [Nervous System is] unimpeachable.”—Publishers Weekly

Lina Meruane's language ultimately works best when it surprises... It is one of Nervous System's reminders of life's staggering happenstance. ― TLS


‘In Nervous System, Lina Meruane subverts the conventions that dominate discussions about literature and illness. . . . With its porous structure, dendritic like our own nervous system, this novel helps us read our own nervous, contemporary moment.’—Alia Trabucco Zerán

‘Nervous System is fast, uncompromising and shimmering with intelligence’ .  -Sarah Moss

“Nervous System’s dreamy lull belies the slow-motion horror of its plot. . . . I still feel blurrily half-drowned in Meruane’s eerie, swirling poetics.”—Sarah Manguso 

‘This is an absolutely fantastic novel. From black holes to mass graves, undiagnosable diseases and (perhaps most terrifying of all) a PhD that hasn't been written, Nervous System is frank, brave, and unsparing. The precision of Meruane's sentences will cut through you like a scalpel.’ – Julianne Pachico

“Here Meruane’s writing fulfills its most beautiful destiny, and her metaphorical play is at its most daring. Thus an atom becomes a galaxy, a hospital a state, a damaged organ a country, an adjective a cancer, a family a cosmos, and the entropy of the cosmos becomes a personal matter.”—El País (Spain)  

“A poetic text, yet addictive as a thriller. . . . The fear of illness is the prism through which the protagonist captures reality.”—Libération (France)  

Publisher: PRH Spain + Eterna Cadencia
Territories: UK: Atlantic Books; US: Graywolf; Argentina: Eterna Cadencia; Brazil: Todavia; France: Grasset; Germany: Aki; Italy: La Nuova Frontiera; Turkey: Timas Yayinlari; Portugal: 20/20 - PRH
Other Lina Meruane Titles