Review: The Return by Victoria Hislop
by Victoria Hislop
432pp, Headline Review, £17.99
The Return offers welcome evidence that women's fiction is getting more ambitious, marching into the realm of big events traditionally colonised by men, in particular military action. Rosie Thomas's Iris & Ruby, which won last year's Romantic Novel of the Year award, featured second world war Egypt; Emma Darwin in The Mathematics of Love dramatised Waterloo. Now Victoria Hislop's new offering, belying its dreamy sepia-tinted cover of a couple close-dancing, revisits the gruesome arena of the Spanish civil war.
This notable documentary undertow was a feature of Hislop's debut, The Island, a multigenerational narrative centred on a leper colony off Crete. After becoming Richard and Judy's top Summer Read in 2006, it went on to sell an astonishing 1 million copies in this country alone. Thousands this summer will read The Return while sunning themselves on Spanish beaches and learn some unpalatable history about their holiday destination.
It opens in the present with a more light-hearted subject: dancing. Thirty-five-year-old Londoner Sonia and her wild-child schoolmate Maggie have taken up salsa. They head to Granada to attend a course, much to the disapproval of Sonia's "dusty" husband James, who reckons she should concentrate her energies on hosting dinner parties and providing a son and heir. While Maggie throws herself into the holiday pleasures of drink, dance and dalliance, Sonia is beguiled by the city's brooding sense of past secrets and by its own dancing tradition, the fiendishly difficult Gypsy art of flamenco. Hislop describes the moves of the dance with a knowing eye, her evocation of its intense dark drama and the close partnership of dancer and guitarist cleverly foreshadowing the central love interest of the book.
Sonia's fascination with the city's history intensifies. She frequents a cafe where the elderly owner, Miguel, displays old posters of bullfighters and dancers; he whets her appetite with tales of Lorca and days gone by. Less convincingly, we discover that Sonia lost her invalid mother, Mary, when young and has learned little about her from her father. When Miguel finally tells the story of the Ramirez family, who once
owned the cafe, the mysterious English Mary will be brought to life as her younger self - a 1930s Spanish dancer, Mercedes. The ground for this transformation is insufficiently prepared, and the large generation gap unexplained until the end, which tests our credulity.
Miguel's third-person account, which ranges from the halcyon beginnings of Spain's Second Republic to the aftermath of the civil war, takes up virtually the rest of the book. Mercedes was the only daughter of the Ramirez family, ominously divided by their political beliefs. While Hislop struggles to explain to a lay audience the complexities of Spanish politics, Mercedes' nascent passion for a visiting guitar prodigy called Javier provides engaging relief. Only after Franco's Nationalist army invades Spain does the narrative really pick up pace and confidence.
Because Miguel's account follows the disparate fortunes of the entire family, Hislop is able to dramatise many different aspects of the war. Granada itself is a crucible of conflict, claiming several Ramirez victims. The eldest brother, Antonio, fights for the Republic in Madrid and Barcelona. Mercedes sets out for Malaga to find Javier just as it's razed to the ground by Franco's foreign allies. She joins the lines of escaping survivors, eventually travelling to Bilbao and beyond in her increasingly desperate search. The descriptions of war-ravaged Spain, of hand-to-hand fighting, bombardment of civilians, brutal atrocities by both sides and Europe's cold reception of refugees are very powerful.
The quest for Javier never sinks into sentimentality. Hislop avoids, too, the temptation of a chocolate-box ending. Less successful is Sonia's too-hurried assimilation of everything she has learned from Miguel, given that it leads her to change her life completely. Perhaps warmer memories of her mother are needed, a stronger sense of connection to both mother and father. Our parents' lives, before they had us, can seem like another country, and it requires a deep longing to reach out across the years in understanding to give the quest real meaning. As the novel ends, Sonia's voyage of discovery has maybe just begun.
· Rachel Hore's novel The Memory Garden is published by Simon & Schuster.