In Melba Escobar's House of Beauty, first published in Colombia in 2015, a young girl named Sabrina is brutally murdered after a visit to an exclusive, upscale salon in Bogotá. Her beautician, Karen, was the last person to see Sabrina alive and finds herself drawn into the tragedy. On its face a simple thriller, this novel simultaneously operates on a much deeper level, introducing readers to a series of women navigating, and at the mercy of, the swirling corruption and menace of Bogotá. Their stories intertwine in a tale of social inequalities and psychological trauma that is both absorbing and deeply troubling.
Escobar has a striking talent for turning a complex and multi-layered phrase. For example, when Sabrina comes in for a wax so that she can be "smooth as an apple" for her much (much) older boyfriend, the image is both subtle and disturbingly vulgar. There are frequent transitions among the multiple narrators, which can be disruptive, but the characters are well drawn, if not always terribly sympathetic, and each has a distinct and recognizable voice. Descriptions of the Colombian setting are equally distinctive, and Escobar creates an intense sense of place. Though never light or easy, House of Beauty is unfailingly compelling and will keep readers engaged until the bitter end. --Judie Evans, librarian