Can the ugly and the divine exist side by side? They do in Jennifer Clement’s Prayers For the Stolen, a moving novel about the female survivors of México’s drug wars. “I am interested very much in how the ugly and the divine coexist,” Clement says from her home in México City.

Clement’s novel emerged from the culmination of a decade of listening. It began with listening to women who were in hiding in México tell their stories; after that became too dangerous, she began listening to women who were imprisoned. From these incarcerated women she “heard about the women being hidden in holes” and it was this image “in Guerrero, in the cornfields, that was the image that really gave birth to the book,” she says.

Prayers For the Stolen is a survivor’s story at its core, the story of a young woman and her mother who persevere through México’s perilous drug wars. Thirteen-year-old Ladydi Garcia Martínez lives with her alcoholic kleptomaniac mother in the remote tropical mountains of the state of Guerrero in México. Men are noticeably absent, for the most part, and when they do make cameos, usually something terrible is happening.

“Now we make you ugly, my mother said,” Clement writes as an opening salvo. She sets the tone with a dry humor that pervades the novel, sharply animating the terrifying conditions the drug wars have forced the women to endure. The mothers in this world scuff up, bruise and disguise their daughters to prevent them from being kidnapped and then being used as drug mules or sex slaves. Ladydi and her small group of friends hide in holes when they hear SUVs rumbling up the mountain. Ladydi eventually escapes from her village to work for an ominously absent rich family in Acapulco only to end up in a women’s prison after a misunderstanding. While incarcerated, she bonds with a sympathetic soul.

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Clement is a memoirist (The Widow Basquiat), a novelist (A True Story Based on Lies and The Poison That Fascinates), a poet, the former president of PEN México and a human rights activist. It is this last calling that infuses Prayers for the Stolen with a stark urgency. Through a beautifully rendered poetic rhythm all her own, Clement tells a story of the often forgotten women who carry on through the drug wars and continue to live through the threat of kidnapping and mortal anxiety.

“This is a land of women. Mexico belongs to women,” Clement writes, speaking through the voice of Ladydi’s mother. Considering the vicious patriarchy and almost feudal state in which the cartels occupy some Mexican states, does that nation really belong to women? “I think it does and I think it starts with the Virgin of Guadalupe,” Clement says. “She is the great mother and the most loved figure, certainly in the country; everybody prays to her more than to Jesus.” México belongs to women spiritually, Clement says, but also in a more literal way: “In many communities, men are missing and so it’s become true in a real way.”

As President of PEN México, Clement put, and still places, her energy toward righting the lack of prosecution of the wholesale slaughter of journalists in México. “The problem in México is that there’s complete impunity,” she says. She rattles off some astounding statistics taken: From 2000 to 2013, “we have 75 journalists killed, 20 disappeared, 40 attempted murders on journalists and nobody is in jail for having killed a journalist.” Clement’s mission is toClement_cover2 make the killing of a journalist a federal crime instead of a state crime. México’s federal government is unable to investigate state crimes and “since many times it’s the state government[s] that are killing journalists, or hushing journalists, or threatening journalists, it’s like the gangster policing the gangster,” she says. According to Clement, what this creates is a vacuum of crime reporting where very few, if any, journalists currently report on the real stories surrounding the drug wars like the fictionalized one of Ladydi. True crime reporting in Mexico has become much too hazardous. “It’s what I call censorship by bullet or self-censorship. Either you get killed or you just shut up because it’s too dangerous,” Clement says.

Prayers for the Stolen tells a complicated and layered story that does not involve attention-grabbing, macabre, male-dominated narratives of decapitated bodies, kilos of cocaine on the table or bacchanalias full of prostitutes and table dances. It feels painfully real, with a dry wit and subtly inquisitive subtext that should leave American readers wondering what can be done.

Clement suggests that America and México share these troubles and that “the United States needs to examine deeply its role in the problems that are happening in México.” The largest misconception Clement feels that gets propagated in the U.S. about the drug wars is that it is solely México’s problem, “but the truth more and more is it is our problem, it’s a shared problem and we have to solve it together,” she says.

Evan Rodriguez is a writer living in Georgetown, Texas. You can follow him on Twitter.