A Lush Bisexual Vampire Gothic: Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk

the cover of 
Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk

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Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk, originally published in 2020 and translated this year by Heather Cleary, is a dramatic and lushly gothic novel about two women who a string of circumstances going back over a century bring together in modern day Buenos Aires. Yuszczuk revels in sensual, physical details as she describes how a vampire from Europe emigrates to Buenos Aires when she realizes she can no longer remain undetected in Europe. Decades later, a modern woman struggling with the realities of her mother’s terminal illness and the ongoing effects of grief inherits a key and sets off a collision of destinies. Thirst is a fairly short read (or compact audiobook in my case), and I had a great time because Thirst is a vampire book that revels in being a vampire book. There’s blood and violence and obsession, and at one point a priest is defiled purely out of spite. It’s a sensuous romp, and perfect for heating up an already hot summer.

Thirst, as the title states, is concerned with thirst, both the physical and sexual.  The vampire narrator is constantly concerned with her physical thirst for blood and with avoiding vampire hunters that are trying to stop her from satisfying that thirst. It’s interesting to me that she both acknowledges that it’s natural for humans to want to stop her from feeding on them and also asserts that she did not ask to be made into a vampire and that it’s natural for her to want to sustain herself, acknowledging the eternal competition between the two. There’s also tension as she is first forced to flee vampire hunters in Europe and then contend with the developing world of forensic science linking her to her victims. Thirst asks, how do you satisfy your thirst in a world increasingly capable of stopping you? 

At the same time, the vampire narrator is also concerned with her more metaphorical thirst.  Living outside of society, and thus societal strictures, she revels in her sexuality, taking what she wants whenever she has the whim. While several of her early encounters are with men—who see her as a helpless lone woman they are taking advantage of even as she uses them—she does not shy away from her physical attraction towards women. Even before she meets the modern narrator, she enjoys an interlude with a washer woman who shows her where she can wash her clothes in private. As they undressed together, I enjoyed that the vampire’s physical appreciation of Justine was untainted with any internal hesitation or regrets—as someone who fed intimately on people’s final moments, the vampire felt free to enjoy any physical pleasure she wanted without bias.

The modern narrator she eventually meets up with, on the other hand, is wracked with grief, indecision, and the expectations of others. Her mother is in the final stages of a horrible, untreatable terminal illness that slowly leaves her more and more paralyzed. As her mother disappears bit by bit under medical paraphernalia and pain, she has to grapple with her day to day life and her young son on top of grief and emotionally-draining caregiving. And as she watches her mother’s choices disappear to be made for her by others, the intensity with which the vampire exists attracts her, even as she is startled and alarmed by the violence. Their immediate attraction to each other is electric and visceral—almost feral. Although most of the book was concerned with their individual journeys, I found the chemistry of their meeting compelling, and the ending satisfying. 

In conclusion, Thirst is a lush gothic vampire novel that takes lingers on the physical realities of being a vampire, the clash between the vitality of life as an individual and the grind of the realities of existence, and the sensuality that is there for the taking if one dares. Yuszczuk keys into a rich gothic and vampiric tradition without overly lingering on logistics or greater vampire lore. This is a book about the journey and the moment. If you love vampires, Latin American gothic, or just some hot summer defiling of norms, Thirst would be a perfect add to your to-read list. It’s a quick but hot read and a great time. 

A Feminist, Latin American Vampire Gothic: Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk, translated by Heather Cleary

the cover of Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk

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Recently translated into English, Marina Yuszczuk’s queer vampire novel, Thirst (Dutton, March 5, 2024), is partly what I’d hoped for in a vampire fiction, and at the same time, it was nothing like what I’d expected. 

Although it’s a Gothic, vampire novel on the surface, Thirst is really a feminist novel about two women’s experiences of life, loss, trauma, and haunting across centuries. Taking place over two different time periods in Buenos Aires, what seem at first like the totally disparate narratives of two women who live in entirely different circumstances eventually come together in a dramatic and bittersweet conclusion. In nineteenth-century Buenos Aires, a vampire arrives on a ship from Europe, fleeing the death and violence she and her sisters found there. She is less a Dracula-like figure arriving at Whitby on the deserted Demeter, and more of a lost scavenger, uninterested in human lives even as she grieves her own losses. 

As the world transforms around her—moving from isolated villages into cosmopolitan, interconnected cities, the vampire must adapt her existence in order to intermingle. In the same city in the present day, a seemingly ordinary woman struggles to cope with the terminal illness of her own mother while also looking after her young son. When she sees the vampire for the first time in a Buenos Aires cemetery at the opening of the novel, the two women are set on a collision course that promises both revelation and destruction. 

This novel is marketed for fans of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), and I can definitely see the parallels. This is a conflicted, confused, and introspective monster novel with just enough of a dash of broken moral compass to make this interesting. Thirst is also compared to the writing of Daphne du Maurier and Carmen Maria Machado, which is something I understand a bit less—to me, Thirst is unique in its style, and it’s a fascinating take on the vampire story.

For me, much of my enjoyment of this novel came in the first half. The first chapter had me completely hooked and I loved reading about the vampire’s origin story. Dark, gory, and dramatic, the image of the nineteenth-century queer female vampire wreaking havoc on Buenos Aires society amidst an abundance of crime and death was gripping. I couldn’t look away! 

The second half, which focuses much more on present-day Buenos Aires, was less exciting for me, although I loved the relationship between the two women. It felt at times in the second half like this was a feminist novel with a Gothic overlay, and that the vampire plot was secondary to the narration of these women’s lives. This disrupted my expectations and made me enjoy the novel a bit less, although I may have been more engaged had I understood from the beginning that this was more of a novel about the way women see the world. 

Thirst is absolutely worth reading if you’re looking for a new and exciting feminist Latin American author, or if you’re a fan of queer vampire stories and historical fiction. I think it’s an interesting addition to the canon, and I would love to read more by this author. 

Please add Thirst to your TBR on Goodreads.

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history. 

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Decadence and Decay: Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk, translated by Heather Cleary

the cover of Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk

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Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk, translated by Heather Cleary (March 5, 2024) is a considered, sorrowful, masterfully atmospheric story about mourning and the costs of surviving outside of society’s protective frameworks. It is also the story of two women in conflict with their inherited and inherent longings around family, companionship and intimacy—one from the past and one from sometime like our present.

Echoes of old-school gothic—in the vein of Rachilde or Poe—permeate Yuszczuk’s prose. And much like those bygone writers, her story is one that poetically captures the complicated moralities of relationships entangled in sociopolitical and material histories.

This is not a vampire romance in the modern sense. The seductions are married to viscera-spilling violence, the decadence marred by decay*, and a sense of bated unsettlement lingers over both the streets and lives our first narrator moves through in her quest for survival. Though she has centuries of experience, she is not immune to the same vices she exploits in others, and is in turn refreshingly slow to condemn them.

The second narrator is much less glamorous. A recent divorcee who’s barely coping with her mother’s terminal illness and hospitalization, our second narrator is struggling but refuses to admit that her white-knuckling isn’t sustainable. That she cannot go on as she always has, that relationships cannot continue in a state of suspended animation. While the past is punctuated by conclusive events and deaths, the present lingers—plastic flowers and medical equipment keep memories alive past well-meaning. We feel the narrator’s frustration, her alienation and desperation and heartache.

I enjoyed the narrators’ lack of hypocrisy and abundance of interiority. I also appreciated how the novel retains all of their dark and stylistic delight, without the aching inconclusiveness or censor-friendly endings of its pulpy and gothic paperback predecessors—even if the title and cover art are practically begging for an appositive colon.

It’s a clever title, and a colloquial pun. But Yuszczuk’s novel complicates the construction of lust as a base instinct on par with hunger or titular thirst. Lust, desire, eroticism and art are all defiant distractions from the inevitable, and their fulfillment requires the sort of communication and connection that those most basic activities do not.

The second half deals more with grief and more clearly reveals veins of Sheridan Le Fanu’s influence. Some of the scenes reminded me of reading Carmilla for the first time. The tension, the confusion, the delicate language building into bloody, sensual intimacy that is hardly explicit but unquestionably erotic.

Thirst is the sort of book that benefits from second reading or a slow first one. It’s not heavy-handed, but it would be a rich digestif to Gilbert and Gubar’s 1979 opus—and is more than a little likely to appeal to fans of that book. While most of the women’s anxieties are tangible and described in grounded detail, their phantastic responses (as well as the ways wealth, privilege, generational fears and architecture are represented) squarely situate this work within the gothic tradition. I also take this as a historical win— we’re past the period when “hysteria” was a valid diagnosis and when women had to veil lived traumas under layers of metaphor.

As with most translated literature, particularly ones that are heavily descriptive, subtly humorous, or in conversation with historical works, there is a chance that a little something may have been lost in translation. And while I haven’t yet read the original, I can attest that Heather Cleary’s translation maintains a lush, tactile lyricism that swept me into the history, even when the perspective was contemporary enough to reference the recent Coronavirus pandemic. 

The vibes were, to put it succinctly, immaculate.

Content warnings: violence, euthanasia

*Some might argue that the close juxtaposition of decay only heightens decadence by contrast. I personally feel that it’s more about how people seek out beauty and small pleasures even in dreary circumstances, but you do you.