The Return – Victoria Hislop
As far as “Reading outside my usual genre” goes, “the Return” did not fit into my original plans. The book was recommended to me by my mother who knew I had recently started reading historical fiction and thought this might kind of fit the bill. One look at the blurb told me that it was not going to be my cup of tea. However, not wishing to disappoint dear old mum - who wants to be that guy? I said I would give it a whirl.
"Beneath the majestic towers of the Alhambra, Granada's cobbled streets resonate with music and secrets. Sonia Cameron knows nothing of the city's shocking past; she is here to dance. But in a quiet cafe, a chance conversation and an intriguing collection of old photographs draw her into the extraordinary tale of Spain's devastating civil war. Seventy years earlier, the cafe is home to the close-knit Ramirez family. In 1936, an army coup led by Franco shatters the country's fragile peace, and in the heart of Granada the family witnesses the worst atrocities of conflict. Divided by politics and tragedy, everyone must take a side, fighting a personal battle as Spain rips itself apart.
After the first 20 pages I was seriously worried. In fact, for much of the first 150 pages I struggled. I was spurred on by assurances from my mother. Victoria Hislop commits all of the writing sins I have been taught to avoid:
· Too many adjectives – check
· Explaining every minor detail – check
· Not sticking to the protagonist’s viewpoint and therefore learning what every character is thinking all of the time – you guessed it, check.
I grew increasingly frustrated that Sonia and Maggie could not just meet in a cafe and talk about the subject relevant to the plot. Instead: the walk to the cafe had to be described in minute detail; as would the 2 second conversation asking someone politely to move out of the way; as would the food they were eating; as would the..... well, you get the idea.
I understand why Victoria Hislop went into this detail as it did provide a flavour of setting and what life in Granada was really about. However, a lot of the time it simply came off as tedious. In the grand scheme of things, 60% of this was irrelevant to the story and the problem was I knew it was irrelevant as I was reading it.
The story really begins when an elderly cafe owner takes the time to educate Sonia about the Spanish civil war. This is where the novel steps up in quality in a big way. Gone are the overly descriptive passages, replaced with a frank retelling of the events surrounding the Ramirez family.
Victoria Hislop spares no feelings as she describes the harsh realities of the time and even more impressive is that as interesting as the retelling of the facts are, they are eclipsed by the internal war that rages within the Ramirez family as the parent attempt to unite their children.
All of the children are well portrayed: The arrogant bull-fighter Ignacio is suitably loathsome, the reclusive Emilio is both sympathetic and frustrating, the pragmatic Antonio is torn between family and duty and finally there is Mercedes who just wishes to dance. Mercedes is almost a retelling of Sonia’s story in her passion for dancing. However, here is actually interesting and VH succeeds in capturing the reader’s imagination.
I have no idea how much of this novel is factually correct, I assume the way it is told means that a lot of it is accurate. What I do know is how ignorant I was of the whole Spanish war and the tyrant that was Franco. This novel has made me go and research the whole subject further and so you can’t praise a book better than that.
When the book returns to the present day we discover that the two stories are actually linked. Any experienced reader will see the link a mile off. The whole set up is a little far-fetched as to how Sonia discovered the cafe but I was entertained by the book.
Overall then, do away with about 70 pages of the first 150, edit some of the prose in this section as well and put a little more thought into making it less of a coincidence, you are left with a very good novel.
My rating: 8.2