Jawbone by Mónica Ojeda

If you had to pick an age group that terrifies you, which would you chose? The girls at Delta Bilingual Academy, High-School-for-Girls (yes, that’s how it’s written) are portrayed as ruthless creatures, bleeding, hairy, violent, a symbol of something explosive, potentially sexual or lethal. And in what way does all their pubescent potential fit into their upper-middle class communities and Catholic school? Mónica Ojeda explores the rituals of six teen girls and contrasts that with their new teacher, crippled by anxiety in her efforts to become the mirror image of her mother in the novel Jawbone.

Ojeda is an author from Ecuador and born in the late 80’s. The novel was translated into English from Spanish by Sarah Booker, who includes notes about her choices, such as the decision to italicize English words, which the six girls pepper throughout their speech. Oftentimes, the girls copy American teens, with phrases like “you know” and “I mean.” Booker further explains that the act of italicizing non-English words in English fiction is one the publishing world continues to debate. What is the effect of othering non-English language, and do the italics disrupt the reading experience to note what is not “the norm”? I do wish the translator’s note was in the beginning of the book because it clarified a lot. For example, the students refer to their teacher, Clara, as “Latin Madame Bovary.” Booker explains:

The girls use the English word to refer to Latin America, suggesting that Clara is the Latin American iteration of the canonically tragic character. In the English version, the use of “Latin” may read as the ancient language of Latin, but using the term “Latina” to allude to the Hispanic world would suggest to a U.S. reader that she was a Spanish speaker in the United States. The italics here denote that the girls are using the English term related to the region of Latin America.

I quote extensively because this was challenging for me to summarize. Typically, when I read and comment on other reviews of books that are translated, the book reviewer is stumped. To what extent did the translator change the way she/he read the book? Here, we have an explanation. And yet, all the italics made me think Jawbone had odd emphasis throughout the sentences, not that what I was reading was either in English in the original edition, or interior thoughts, per tradition in writing.

The plot of Jawbone can’t be tidily summed up. My book club and I thought we were getting a novel about a teen named Fernanda tied up in a cabin and held captive by her teacher. And yet most of the novel is set before, in transcripts from Fernanda’s visits to her silent therapist, in a letter her friend Annelise writes to Clara explaining how she knows Clara’s deepest fears, in the games Fernanda and Annelise play with their four friends: kissing, strangling, biting, pushing each other down the stairs, telling horror stories that are worse than physical violence, and worshipping a god Annelise created that acknowledges the puniness of life and the hugeness of old gods that can destroy you at any moment, like a the mother crocodile the carries her babies in her jaws.

We get this tense dance around mothers and daughters in connection with the image of the crocodile carrying the babies. It only takes a moment for the mother to choose to devour her young. Teen girls are balancing on a thread between life and instantly being destroyed. Fernanda and Annelise see power in the potential in puberty, not realizing they could be in the mouth of not their own mothers, but other grown women. The scenes with Clara standing in front of her out-of-control classroom made me feel claustrophobic tension as the teen girls test their boundaries, not realizing they are in the presence of a primordial beast, because there is potential in adult women who care for the young, too.

The writing isn’t direct; it must flow over you if you are to get through the novel. I wasn’t surprised by the writing style, though, as the publisher, Coffee House Press, is known for syntactically innovative books. Eventually, I noticed a repetition of certain images, like crocodiles, milk, and eyelashes. Although not every sentence 100% make sense, the experience of the language leaves you with a strong impression that builds in the climactic last pages, and I came away with an overwhelming emotion that I couldn’t tidy up to explain neatly.

A thoughtfully written novel full of symbolism and twisted imagery, peppered with horror movie references. You’ll get Ginger Snaps and The Craft vibes, though this novel isn’t written for a YA audience.


  1. Coffee House Press is a local to me press and I love their work even if I don’t read all their books. This one sounds super interesting. Really enjoyed your review. I always love reading the translator’s note when there is one and I really love it when they talk very specifically about the choices they made and why. I read a great article not long ago by a translator who said everyone should try translating something sometime, even if you aren’t fluent in the language because it makes you read closely and really consider all the things about, in this case a poem. I think I might try it sometime, could be fun and also a good lesson 🙂


    • Oh, yeah, trying to figure out what someone means is really hard. We were talking in interpreting yesterday about how you would interpret a business meeting that has jargon like “beating around the bush” or “boil the ocean” or “jump the shark.” What does that person REALLY mean, and what are we losing by interpreting instead of translating?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m really interested to read Jawbone and I enjoyed the material on the translation, thank you! I’m a fan of as few italics as possible, so I definitely wouldn’t want non-English words italicised in English books, but I can see the translator’s dilemma here as otherwise, how would we know when the girls are using English?


    • I know Junot Diaz was the first writer I encountered who refused to Italicize non-English words, because he felt it simply othered the characters and broke up their natural flow of speech when they did use English and added Spanish words or Dominican slang.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I first encountered italicising words in other languages with French words or phrases in old (Victorian/early Edwardian) novels, where the use of French in casual conversation by Anglophone speakers is meant to connote affectation – so to me, in those books, I hear the French in a sort of showing-off tone when I read them. (And not just Anglophone literature – I haven’t actually read it yet, but I believe that in War and Peace, Tolstoy describes Moscow as having been “affected by la grippe” as a way of showing that all the high society people are trying to make the flu pandemic sound classy and elegant, which is very funny). In novels where people are bilingual or naturally mix languages, it makes sense that you wouldn’t italicise normal speech for the reasons given, but it can be used to great humorous effect. Also, I have to say that as a child reading those novels, I appreciated it, because I was always encountering unfamiliar vocab in those books and it did help me to know whether something was English or not when I was trying to work out what it meant (or using it in conversation!).


    • Lou, those are two great points! I hadn’t thought of how a young reader might have trouble realizing a word wasn’t just an English one that had not encountered. As for italicizing words to show affection or high society, I haven’t read anything like that and recognized it because I wouldn’t have the knowledge to realize that someone in Moscow was trying to make the flu sound romantic. I really wish translator notes were at the beginning of books so I could go in and realize why these choices were made. As for a book written in English that occasionally uses words in another language, I’m not sure what to think. I suppose as an English-speaking person I don’t need to think about it too hard for now, though that sounds like a cop out.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hoo boy this one sounds dark, and will likely give me anxiety about what I have to deal with in the future when my daughter grows into a teen. I’m really terrified about my kids getting bullied, because I imagine there is a sort of helplessness about it as a parent. Although, perhaps I’m projecting onto this book. It’s not necessarily about bullying is it? The girls are all just very close, and sometimes that can be dangerous to others maybe? Or maybe I’m just over-analayzing, as per usual LOL


    • I had female friendships when I was in high school that were SO intense that they were like serious dating relationships. I remember thinking, “I’ve only had my heart broken once!” but then it’s like no, there were these girls who were my everything, and they broke my heart, or I broke theirs. I’m not sure what to think about parenting a teen other than always being open to listening without judgement, though you can’t just say that, you have to show that by relentlessly not judging your kid, your spouse, people you see on TV, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! Part of how I am finding such books is by searching only on Hoopla so all book club members, regardless or location or finances, can join in. I’ve got a weirdly fine-tuned little mental feeler that finds books that my club just loves.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. 14-year-old girls are probably the scariest to me so this book makes total sense to me! Particularly the group dynamics of teenage girls seem to so easily become unhealthy.

    The translation conversation here is interesting. I agree that translator’s notes are usually best at the beginning of a book – I recently read a translated work where it started with a note from the translator and that helped my understanding of the whole book.


  6. I’m older than Lou and the words that were itallicized in the books I read were generally Latin (and I don’t mean central/south American). My impression – of C19th books – was that upper middle class readers were expected to have some French (and often, some German).

    My guess in 2023 is that English is losing its primacy and that we will have to get used to reading books by people who are naturally bi-lingual and who speak English and Spanish or patois in the same sentence; and who write as they speak.


    • I’m hoping English loses its primacy! Now, how the American attitude toward that will shift, well, I’m not hopeful. People actually say things like, “speak American” when they mean “speak English, but not with an accent.”


Insert 2 Cents Here:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s