Book review: Ill wind on Spanish sands
Published Date: 29 June 2008
By Lucinda Byatt
The horrors of civil war and the mystery of flamenco will soon be heading for the beach
Headline Review, £17.99
NEARLY 70 years have passed since the Nationalist victory in Madrid in 1939, but only last November, Spain’s socialist government passed the law of “historical memory” which declared the military tribunals illegitimate and granted public funds to families wishing to exhume the bodies of those killed in the Civil War.
Paradoxically, the measure has irritated many, who believe that historical memory is not a subject for legislation. To quote the poet García Lorca: “In all countries death is an end. It comes, and the curtains are closed. Not in Spain. In Spain, they are raised… A dead person in Spain is more alive dead than anywhere else in the world.”
Victoria Hislop’s second novel is set in Grenada, where Lorca was executed in 1936, and she pays tribute to his words, since it is here that Sonia Cameron rediscovers her mother’s family and their story, which still lives on through a café and its current owner.
The story starts in the present, as Sonia and her friend Maggie fly out from London for a week’s flamenco course in Grenada. Sonia’s encounter with a barman at El Barril, a café in the heart of the city, and the sight of some old photos on the wall intrigue and prompt her to delve more deeply into the city’s history. As she discovers more about the Ramirez family, who owned the café, she finds herself drawn to their story, which has mysterious resonances with her own and that of her Spanish mother Mercedes, who died when Sonia was a teenager.
The Island, Hislop’s debut novel, was the 2006 Richard and Judy best-selling summer read, described as a “beach book with a heart”. Those looking for a repeat experience should not be disappointed, but this is also a darker book. All the ingredients are there: the bittersweet romance between Mercedes and Javier and their extraordinary artistic partnership – she as the young flamenco dancer and he the tocaor, or guitarist; the story of a family relentlessly torn apart by historical events; and the contemporary interest of Sonia’s failing marriage to a heavy-drinking London banker, and her lifelong friendship with Maggie, which forms the focus of the opening and closing sections.
In the central section, however, the story switches to the years of the Civil War. The Ramirez family was one of millions caught up in and tragically divided by these terrible events: Mercedes’ father is imprisoned, two of her brothers support opposing sides, while the third – a follower of Lorca – is imprisoned and brutally killed in a wave of homophobic retaliation. The chaos brought by war is skilfully handled, but the pace of the central section is sometimes overburdened by factual detail – Sonia hears the story told by Javier over the course of “several hours”.
During her desperate and ultimately fruitless search for Javier, Mercedes comes into contact with a series of passing characters – Manuela and her young son, Ana and her embittered parents – creating a vivid sense of these individuals’ arbitrary fate and the senseless violence of their deaths.
One aspect that was a personal revelation was the evacuation of Spanish children to England, as well as the exodus of refugees to France, where they were treated less than humanely. Mercedes secures a place on one of the ships leaving Bilbao in May 1939, an operation that gathered pace after the Guernica massacre.
On a lighter note, the story is imbued with a love of flamenco. Dancing links Mercedes to her daughter, bridging the years and their vastly different circumstances. Hislop brilliantly recreates the passion that flows through the Andalusian dancers and the dark creative force of duende, so evocatively described by Lorca as working on the body of the dancer “like the wind works on sand”. Some of the most memorable scenes describe the way that, even when it was banned by Nationalists as immoral, this passionate art form could offer the audience a cathartic release in the midst of such tragic events.
Hislop has written another worthy candidate for the ‘best holiday read’ category, although the story will cast a shadow over the lighthearted atmosphere on the beaches of southern Spain.
© Lucinda Byatt