published: 3rd October 2019
Madrid, 1957. Tourists and foreign businessmen flood into Spain under the welcoming guise of sunshine and wine while Spanish citizens are gripped by a dark secret.
Daniel Matheson, the son of an oil tycoon, hopes to connect with the country of his mother’s birth through the lens of his camera. Photography -and fate – introduce him to Ana, a hotel maid, whose family is suffering under the fascist dictatorship of General Franco.
Daniel and Ana’s lives and hearts collide as they unite to uncover the hidden darkness within the city – a darkness that could engulf them all. . .
Master storyteller Ruta Sepetys once again shines light into one of history’s darkest corners in this epic, heart-wrenching novel about identity, unforgettable love and the hidden violence of silence.
Galley provided by publisher
CWs: mentions of past torture, implied sexual harrassment
Ruta Sepetys is one of those authors who you know you can trust to write thoroughly-researched and engaging historical fiction. The kind that transports you there, puts you in that context better than any history class might. She takes you down to the individual level of big historical events. In this case, the Franco regime in Spain, and the “relocation” of the babies of people who disagreed politically with Franco.
There are a multitude of POVs in this book – so many that if I tried to list them all, I might well leave some out by accident. Perhaps the most important ones are Anna, Daniel, Puri and Rafa, because each of them tells a separate thread of the story. The book opens in Madrid, 1957. Spain is gradually opening up to the world, letting American businessmen (like Daniel’s father) and diplomats stay in the country and doing deals with said businessmen. Anna works at the hotel where Daniel is staying, while Rafa, her brother, is helping his friend, Fuga, become a matador. Puri, Anna’s cousin, works at an orphanage, under the charge of Catholic nuns. Anna’s mother and father had been Republicans (though now are both dead), while Puri’s parents were staunch Francoists. (The book does give you a rundown of both sides at the start, though briefly here: Francoists/Nationalists = fascists/rich landowners (and the Church), Republicans = the amalgamation of groups who opposed them, including, though not limited to, people supporting the elected government and communists.)
This story showcases what Sepetys does best. Takes individual lives in a historical event and contextualises it for you. It’s been done countless times, particularly with more well-known events. Psychologically speaking, it probably makes it easier to empathise when you have individual people and are thinking on a smaller scale. And Sepetys is so so good at it. She creates these characters you just want to root for. You want to go back and change history so nothing bad happens to them.
But there’s also a way that historical accuracy lets the book down slightly for me. Because things start to feel unresolved. There are all these hints that characters have started to work out that babies are being stolen, but nothing is done about it. It ends abruptly with Daniel’s departure from Spain. And I know that in real life, nothing would have been done, for fear of risking being seen as an enemy of Franco. But in a book, it just makes things feel un-tied up. Okay, so the 18 years later part does something towards that, yes, but it’s like the start of the resolution rather than the resolved end of a novel. Though, hey, this is all personal, and I know I’m the kind of person who hates even the slightest hint of an open ending, so that was always going to be a problem.
Finally, the narrative never really felt damning enough of Daniel’s father’s involvement with Franco (among other things). It almost seemed a bit like a shrug and a “well that’s how it was” moment. We know from the book Franco has done horrific things – there are reminders of how Anna’s mother was tortured for being a Republican, how her father was killed by his supporters. But it’s always knocked off on “the Crows” (the Guardia Civil) rather than being actually attributed to him. In a way, it seems to be downplaying his dictatorship. So while the book is a good one, the fact that Ruta Sepetys is coming at the time period from an outsider’s perspective definitely shows.
If there’s one thing this book does very successfully though (albeit incidentally I assume), it’s show how all the “for the Spanish people” bullshit coming from the American government and businesses felt a lot more like it was enabling Franco than actually helping the Spanish people.
So yeah, I did enjoy this book. It’s probably thinking more about it while reviewing that’s lead me to like it less.