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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Four by Four

Sara Mesa

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To purchase Four by Four

Title: Four by Four
Author: Sara Mesa
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 237 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Four by Four - US
Cuatro por cuatro - US
Four by Four - UK
Four by Four - Canada
Quatre par quatre - France
Cuatro por cuatro - España
  • Spanish title: Cuatro por cuatro
  • Translated by Katie Whittemore

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Our Assessment:

B : quite effective and well done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 9/3/2020 .
TLS . 6/8/2021 Annie Mcdermott
World Lit. Today . Fall/2020 T. Patrick Ortez

  From the Reviews:
  • "While Mesa's ambitious two-part structure falters with uneven pacing, sparse details, and a jarring switch to Isidro's point of view, Isidro eventually discovers the school's secrets, and Mesa briefly shines. In a recent glut of neo-gothic tales, this one feels extraneous." - Publishers Weekly

  • "In Four by Four Mesa shows us the forces of cruelty and oppression at work in a nightmarish world." - Annie Mcdermott, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Mesa uses every tool at her disposal. The language is short and precise, as if from a dream, yet each character has a distinctive point of view, sometimes cold and distant, sometimes uncomfortably intimate. The setting is timeless, as close or distant as we want, but the use of diary entries and third-person present tense builds the illusion of voyeurism. And at every moment, the silence speaks as loudly as words" - T. Patrick Ortez, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Four by Four is largely set in the isolated Wybrany College (pronounced: güíbrani colich and generally just referred to by those there as the colich), its location not indicated by any road signs nor even mentioned on the official website. The institution was founded in 1943: "by a Polish businessman forced into exile during the Second World War" as a sort of orphanage, although the school itself is newer, perhaps only fifteen years old or so; as with much else about the school, specificity and any sort of certainty remain elusive. It is a highly regarded school -- apparently: "one of the best schools in the country" -- , with many of the children coming from wealthy and powerful families. But students are divided into 'Normals' -- the paying students -- and the 'Specials' -- scholarship students, including the children of the menial workers employed at the school, and while the school claims to treat them equally, there is a clear separation between the two groups.
       While little is seen in the novel of the world beyond Wybrany, it is clear that there is considerable turmoil there, although the extent of (and reasons for) it remain unclear. The cities are restless, though one can still move about easily; still, one of the characters notes the contrast to the colich, finding it: "a relief from the chaos of Cárdenas" (though admittedly that's before he really gets much of a sense of the place ...). What used to be the closest city to the colich, Vado, has apparently become "defunct" over the years -- depopulated over the same time as the school has been in existence (suggesting a sinister connection between the two ...).
       Wybrany doesn't seem all that impressive an academic institution -- or environment for kids to grow up in. If not seeming to be a terribly strict, the Headmaster and his crew seem fairly questionable, and many of the kids not exactly flourishing: the novel opens with a would-be escape attempt of sorts by a group of girls, while early chapters repeatedly turn to constantly bullied boy Ignacio (who, when he comes into his own later, only does so by turning the tables and becoming a vicious bully in his own right).
       The novel is divided into two parts, along with a brief epilogue-cum-appendix. The first part is 'Never More than Two Hundred', which refers to the total number of students enrolled at any given time, carefully balanced between boys and girls. The short chapters here shift between a first person account by one of the Special students, Celia, and accounts in the third person of scenes from the colich, including some involving Celia, as well as often focusing on bullied Ignacio, whose position is transformed (somewhat circuitously) by the arrival of a new student.
       The longer second section is 'A Substitute's Diary', the short diary entries, from 12 November to 23 January of the next year of another new arrival, a substitute teacher who takes the place of one García Medrano. (And it is the papers of this disappeared García Medrano that come into the substitute's hands, and which are then presented as the epilogue/appendix to the book.) The substitute is, in fact, a fraud: calling himself Isidro Bedragare, he has taken up the position in the place (and guise) of his sister's former husband, his ex-brother-in-law. The real Isidro had abandoned his wife "without any explanation" (there's a lot of that going around in this novel ...) and so the fake Isidro took up the job offer in his place. (So he is, in fact, a double substitute, standing in for not one but two men who have essentially vanished.)
       The fake Isidro is ill-equipped to be a substitute teacher. In fact, he's a would-be writer. After some early success he's struggled with writing, and now he can't seem to get on with it. At least he's started a diary now -- but, as he notes in it:

This is not a novel. My imagination is still dormant. I'm paralyzed by reality.
       The (sur)reality of the colich doesn't ultimately help much either, this Isidro losing himself in ever-more feverish confusion. As he is eventually warned, when he sniffs around for more information about the goings-on at the colich: "Knowledge can drive you straight to madness".
       Isidro is curious about the disppearances, especially of his predecessor but then also Celia's. There's an air of mystery around the circumstances of their absences, even though there are ready explanations for them. Eventually a third person affiliated with the school also exits the scene -- though the exact nature of his fate is more quickly determined.
       Isidro gets the papers García Medrano left behind, just twelve pages that he first takes for: "the outline for a story, or maybe an essay"; the content baffles him and his initial impression is: "I don't think I can decipher all this". Of course, eventually more of the pieces fall into place, clarifying the content; the papers are then reproduced at the conclusion of the novel, for the reader to put the final pieces into place, revealing (or confirming) the truths about this institution and what goes on behind the scenes.
       Much of Four by Four is atmosphere and stage-setting, with struggles of power and domination -- often subtle, sometimes entirely overt -- and the relationship in which characters stand to one another, with all its gives and takes, particularly prominent throughout. A surface calm betrays an underlying tension at Wybrany College. The fact that everyone seems to have things to hide and secrets to keep intensifies this; Isidro's concern about the false pretenses under which he is there (and his fear of being discovered) is just the most glaring example.
       Mesa creates a world that is -- as schools often are -- seemingly orderly, a secluded contrast from the chaos that here is apparently enveloping the outside world, while in fact the institution is only a different kind of rigid, oppressive society-in-miniature.
       When Isidro summarizes the novel he pretends he is writing he describes it as:
     A mystery about rules that are established but never completely defined. The stranger doesn't know them. He can't come to terms with them, even if he wanted to. But he can't fight them either. The rules exist. They're strong, unquestionable, but they're not written anywhere. Therefore, they can't be obeyed or disobeyed.
       It reflects his experiences at the colich, where practically the entire time he feels at sea, uncertain of almost anything, including what is expected of him. (For a supposedly good school, they're really lax -- quite unbelievably so, actually -- on teacher preparation and oversight (and, apparently, checking references, since it's hard to believe Isidro could have passed for his brother-in-law if they had checked those a bit more thoroughly).)
       Mesa's presentation makes for a quite engaging read, with its neatly intensifying sinister atmosphere. The interactions among the children are dominated by assertions, in various forms, of power (over others) and allegiance, typical of any grouping of youths (if, in part, more extreme). But it is the adults, with their positions of authority -- as headmaster and staff and teachers -- and the way they use it, especially over the children, that are also more sinister and, in part, subtler. (Typically, too, the only adult who can't maintain his authority over the pupils is the fake Isidro.)
       It makes for a solid allegory of the totalitarian, with an impressively evoked oppressive atmosphere -- almost all background until the end, but oh so threateningly nearby throughout. The deliberate vagueness, about so much and for so long, is quite effective but one does wish for more substantial grounding at times; in particular, the substitute's diary can be annoying in just how clueless and uncertain he is about practically everything (compounded with him at times even less clear in mind, as when he drinks too much as well as when he is ill).

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 June 2020

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Four by Four: Reviews: Other books by Sara Mesa under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Spanish author Sara Mesa was born in 1976.

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© 2020-2021 the complete review

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