My thanks to Penguin Random House Children’s UK and NetGalley for a review copy of this compelling and heart-rending read.
Spain in the 1950s, the Spain of General Franco provides the setting for this young adult novel. This was a regime where Franco ruled supreme, those that conformed could get by but those that ‘dared’ to hold their own views, to question, were repressed, subjected to torture, even killed while their families would live in fear for the rest of their lives. Women in particular had harder rules to follow from what they could wear to their right to love (and duty to be chaste) or even travel. And Franco ruled for 36 years. In the period our story is set, Americans were allowed in, as tourists but mostly as investors. In this place and time, we follow multiple characters and multiple threads.
On the one side we have siblings Ana, Rafa, and Julia Moreno, whose parents were killed by the regime for trying to run a school otherwise than as prescribed by Franco. Ana who is eighteen works at the Castellana Hilton, Madrid as a maid. Here she sees tourists, visitors from outside who bring with them pictures (magazines, papers) of a way of life where women can be free, where material things or at least a basically decent life is not out of reach. Rafa her brother works two jobs at a butcher’s and at a cemetery, while alongside training his friend Fuga as a matador (if they succeed, they might have a chance at a better life). Julia is married with a baby, and she works as a seamstress, making clothes for matadors. Life is a struggle for the family who is back together after being separated as children, and they must hold on to their jobs to be able to simply survive while moving to a slightly better home is a dream they are working towards (for which they much pinch and give up even the tiniest of luxuries). But as children of people who opposed Franco, they must always be on their guard for one wrong step can spell doom. But all three have dreams, and Ana and Rafa in particular also want to stand up to the restrictions they are living under but must tread carefully. Alongside we also have their cousin Puri who works at an orphanage. Puri believes in Franco’s regime, lives by the rules, but when she witnesses certain things and begins to have questions, she has nowhere to turn and must struggle between her ‘duty’ and her questions.
On the other side, we have Daniel Matheson, also eighteen who has come to Madrid with his Dad, an oil baron from Texas and his mother who is Spanish. Daniel speaks Spanish and finds himself at home in Spain. Like the Moreno siblings, he too has dreams, of being a photographer, attending journalism school—in fact he is a photographer and in the finals of a photography contest. But at a different level, he too is restricted for his father does not take his dreams seriously, and wants him to join his business. In the hotel, Daniel meets Ana and a friendship, even inklings of love develop. Ana finds Daniel to be different from other Americans she has met but is scared both because of her position and past experience. Daniel young, naïve, does not quite realise the truth of the country. Still his interest in Ana, and attempts at getting photographs for his contest (encouraged by journalist Ben Stahl who he meets in Madrid) lead him to uncover faces of the country that are not known outside, stumble upon secrets, and also bring him to the brink of danger as well.
This book drew me in right from the start and kept me reading throughout. In fact, I was reading well past bedtime and then again first thing in the morning to see what would happen to the characters.
As I wrote, this one has multiple characters and storylines—while we follow the perspectives of the characters I’ve mentioned, there are also others including Daniel’s parents, Nick, the son of a US embassy official who is dissipated and always in trouble, Miguel who runs a camera shop and develops Daniel’s pictures, Ben Stahl the journalist, and Fuga, the aspiring matador besides others at the hotel, embassy, and orphanage. Each of the storylines are interesting in themselves and there is never the feeling that one would rather be reading or getting back to another. One feels for most of the characters, and often has one’s heart in one’s mouth when any danger looms. Sepetys weaves these threads together masterfully, and one never loses track of where one is or who one is following.
This is a heart-wrenching read in many ways. Honestly I knew very little about Spain in Franco’s time before reading this book, and the conditions and constant fear that people had to live in can’t but be upsetting, and in fact make one feel rather exasperated. It is worse to think that this was a world at a time around and just after the Second World War, when the rest of the world was making pronouncements of equality, freedom and human rights. But all of these seen to have proved hollow and paper protections for so many in reality.
I loved the inclusion of historical material in the book—newspaper reports, extracts from letters and government reports, interspersed between chapters, and giving one a sense of the real while not interfering with the flow of events.
This was a really gripping and moving read, and I highly recommend it!