Before it happened there was the dread of it. “They were brittle, those veins that sprouted from my retina and coiled and snaked through the transparent humor of my eye,” says Lina Meruane, the first-person narrator and main character. If those veins burst, Lina could go blind. All that can be done to prevent such a disaster she’s told, “is to keep watch day by day over its millimetric expansions...keep watch over the sinuous movement of the venous web advancing toward the center of my eye.” Adding to her dread are “impossible admonitions to follow.”
Stop smoking...don’t hold your breath, don’t cough, do not for any reason pick up heavy packages, boxes, suitcases. Never ever lean over, or dive headfirst into water. The carnal throes of passion were forbidden, because even an ardent kiss could cause my veins to burst. (p. 5)
And then, “it was happening. Right then, happening” (p. 3). She had only bent over to retrieve a syringe for her scheduled insulin injection. She’s paralyzed. “I didn’t straighten up or move an inch, didn’t even try to breath while I watched the show. Because that was the last thing I would see, that night, through that eye: a deep, black blood (p. 4).

Lina is in the dissertation stage of a PhD degree at a New York City university. The story veers from this pursuit to one of restoring her eyesight. The other primary characters are Lina’s Galacian love interest and fellow academic, Ignacio, who shepherds her through this journey, her New York retinal specialist, Dr. Lekz, and her parents who are both physicians—her father a cardiologist, her mother a pediatrician—practicing in Lina’s native country, Chile.

Soon after the bleeding incident, Lekz tells Lina that at least a month would be needed for her eyes “to clear up so I can take a look at this mess” (p. 32). “Weren’t you going to go to Chile to see your family? Go to Chile. Take a vacation” (p. 33). The story relocates from New York to Santiago, and from Lina’s medical problems to her familial dynamics—“I never wanted you to be my doctor, it’s enough for you to be my father” (p. 50). The visit also becomes a time for Lina—and Ignacio—to see what life might be like if she never regained full sight, and to contemplate options for such an eventuality. She had become “an apprentice blind woman” (p. 20).

Lina and Ignacio return to New York city for the hoped-for reparative surgery. The procedure produces promising signs, but Lina must wait at least the four weeks it takes for Helium gas bubbles to dissipate so Lekz can see the results. During this period, Lina tries to keep her head position down and her spirits up. Often the opposite resulted. Before four weeks passes, however,
Blood, again, in my eye. A fine thread of blood that comes from I don’t know where...I’m watching as the eye watches its thread of blood, looking at everything without ceasing my cries: I’m bleeding I’m bleeding again. (p. 142)
Futility looms, “knowing they were going to operate on me but that no cure existed” (p. 113).  Lina and Lekz consider their options. After Lina’s initial bleeding incident, Lekz had “dropped the phrase transplants in experimental stages” (p. 5). The idea stuck with her. She had spoken about it separately with her mother and Ignacio. Both were fraught conversations. Nevertheless, Lina and Lekz return to the topic.


The novel at its most basic level follows the story of Lina from the time of her retinal hemorrhage through surgery and the realization that blindness is near certain. The story involves the interplay of serious clinical events, family and social relationships, challenges with daily activities, and diminishing medical options. 

While the primary storyline concerns how Lina’s retinal hemorrhages interrupt and threaten her way of life, it also explores how a demand for an extreme proof of love can arise and take shape. Or, did Meruane intend the demand for an extreme proof of love be the primary storyline? Either way, the prospect of an eye transplant—as improbable as it is—and the need for a donor became for Lina the means to ask Ignacio for proof of his love for her. “Only one, Ignacio, the proof is only one, I would never ask for both. The smallest proof I could ask you for, scarcely larger than a marble” (p. 153). Around this explicit plea, Meruane constructs tortured thoughts, subtle taunts, sporadic rants, and ideal endings the two of them exchange about “that.” In contrast, Lina rejects her mother’s offer of her eyes: from not requiring proof of her love—a mother’s love can never be doubted; not wanting her love; or simply because “they were used eyes, worn out and dilapidated from medicine, too-old eyes” (p. 130). For whatever reason, her mother is off the hook.

There is drama enough in this story to satisfy many readers, but there is also much more for readers interested in literary fiction that clarifies how illness affects individuals, families, and health care providers, and also how it expands on complex biomedical concepts.

Meruane provides vivid descriptions of retinal vessel rupture with bleeding into the vitreous cavity as someone seeing the carnage through their own eyes. Her descriptions of retinal hemorrhage add the dimension of personal experience, which render detailed and memorable images, and convey the terror it breeds.
And then a firecracker went off in my head. But no, it was no fire I was seeing, it was blood spilling out inside my eye. The most shockingly beautiful blood I have ever seen. The most outrageous. The most terrifying. The blood gushed, but only I could see it. With absolute clarity I watched as it thickened, I saw the pressure rise, I watched as I got dizzy, I saw my stomach turn, saw that I was starting to retch. (p. 4)
Lina’s retinal hemorrhage is a consequence of her diabetes. Not much is said about her diabetes, and that she even has juvenile-onset (type I) diabetes is inferred from references to her insulin injections, her age, and her retinopathy. However, in one scene, Meruane considers the impacts such a diagnosis can have on a family and as the child with diabetes can perceive them. Lina reflects on how her parents while still young, happy with their lives in New York City with exciting futures, felt forced to make abrupt changes when they learned of her diabetes, and imagines how they could hold resentments against her. 
To suspend all their plans when I. And the phrase hung suspended, encrusted in their teeth. No one said: that disease, yours. No one said the tests, the diagnosis, the daily injections, the special diet, my mother’s exhaustive care, and a life far from family support. They didn’t talk about the difficult decision to leave splendid jobs in that hospital where overspending was the norm, nor of the fortune my parents would have amassed if only I. They didn’t say it, but there were truths hanging by the thread of that pause. Truths swinging in the breeze. (p. 35)
Another time just before surgery, Lina thinks back on what her diabetes has caused her and her family throughout her life. “I don’t remember having even a moment of childhood. Not an instant of calm. Not a second when I wasn’t wondering when the hand of tragedy was going to touch me” (p. 114).

Meruane does not make health care costs a central concern, but she recognizes their importance in a few scenes. Her thirty-day wait for her first surgery was made necessary in part because certain insurance matters required attention. On another occasion, Lina begs her dean to maintain her grant that comes with insurance. And, when she returns to the hospital bleeding again, she is forced to address questions concerning insurance problems before she can see her doctor. With these scenes, Meruane has depicted “financial toxicity” as the adverse personal consequences of health care costs have become known in the U.S.

The book is somewhat unconventional in form. It comprises paragraphs of two to three pages in length that short, pithy headings separate. While Lina is speaking to the readers in the first-person most of the time, sometimes she is speaking only to Ignacio when the text is placed within parentheses. Dialog is not distinguished by quotation marks or separate lines. The book takes some work, but the effort required is not without rewards, but a second time through may be necessary to appreciate them all.

Readers can wonder if the novel is autobiographical. The main character and the author share the same name; they both hail from Santiago, Chile; they both pursued PhD degrees in Latin American Literature at a New York City university; and they have parents who are both physicians. But, Meruane toys with readers ready to assume the book is autobiographical. When Lina’s thesis advisor suggests she write a “blind memoir,” she told her “my impulse had always been toward fiction” (p. 137). When she takes a satirical shot at the innumerable and irrelevant pre-surgical questions Lina is asked to answer, one of the questions is, “what is fiction for you?” (p. 116) Lina tells Ignacio when they first met that she had “started in journalism but then they kicked me out for falsifying the objective truth of the facts, and I moved on to fiction, one hundred percent (p. 21). Whether the book is or is not autobiographical does not affect the drama or insights on illness it offers; however, readers seeing it as autobiographical will transfer their empathy from Lina the character to Lina the author; she’s had a rough go. 


Megan McDowell translated the novel from Spanish into English.

Seeing Red is a prelude for Lina Meruane’s subsequent novel, Nervous System, in which she takes on more complex illness and injuries scenarios and how they disrupt lives across all members of a family.

Lina Meruane, PhD, is clinical associate professor and teaches Latin American Cultures, Arts and Cultures in the Core Program at New York University. She also teaches in the Global Liberal Studies Program, and is affiliated with the M.F.A. in Creative Writing in Spanish.


Deep Vellum

Place Published

Dallas, Tx



Page Count