Just before the Second World War came the Spanish civil war. Its impact reached the deepest depths of the lives of the people.
Publisher: Headline Review
First Published: 2008
Date Reviewed: 5th April 2010
Sonia likes to dance, but she didn’t realise this until she started Salsa lessons on impulse after finding a shabby-looking studio. It stood beside the boring old cinema she visited with her boring old and ever-so-slightly alcoholic husband. When she invites her friend Maggie to join her lessons Maggie becomes even more passionate than she and books them plane tickets to Spain for an authentic experience. But what awaits Sonia in Spain is more than dance lessons. Woven into the fabric of cheery, tourist-attracting Granada is a whole history seeped in conflict, one that draws Sonia into the heart of a world she never thought to explore and which seems to relate to her rather personally.
The Return begins as though a modern woman’s novel, a Chick-Lit if you will. Both Sonia and Maggie are likeable and the temptation to put your feet up and prepare yourself for a journey with them is hard to resist. What stops you is the blurb and it’s just as well because Sonia’s story is but one part in a saga of love and loss.
For a long time dancing is the focus. It offers a firm grounding in the traditional culture of Spain, and more authentically than any tourist package holidays. Rather than learn the steps you’re taught about the reasons for them and the history behind it. Accompanying this is a brief introduction into the discipline required in the bullring and the stages from assistant to matador. These stereotypes of Spain are engaged to help you submerse yourself in the setting while being valid as common occupations of the era.
The narrative of the friends learning Salsa comes to a pause when Sonia meets Miguel. From this encounter comes page upon page of information about the war told through the lives of the Ramirez family. Their function is exquisite – rather than tell the story of the war through the usage of a famous person or one with a unique account, Hislop has opted to manage her own creations. She has constructed a family akin to millions of others in Spain at the time, people with little claim to fame and with no influence, to illustrate the plight of the ordinary person in the street. It is very easy to become indifferent to something when you hear it from a second-hand source, a summary of lots of things put together, so by means of putting a bog-standard group of people in the spotlight Hislop forces the reader to take note and experience the feelings and fears of the people who suffered most. While it’s likely she interviewed many survivors and compiled their accounts into one it never comes across as forced or weighed down with different elements.
Laced into Mercedes Ramirez’s journey is a tale of love torn apart. While the cover of the book makes much of this romantic aspect the element is mostly confined to requited but unrealised love. It doesn’t lie at the heart of the book but rather to the side, as it’s not as important perhaps as the factual information but a defining part of the latter of the story. The character of Sonia is merely a vehicle until the end, where she holds the power to tie up the loose threads, more involved in this facet than your average character.
The book is very long and because of its nature one can at times sense a slowing down in the storytelling on the horizon. This does happen, but it’s not a burden on the reader because there are so many things you want to find out about that you’ll keep reading regardless – and sure enough, within the subsequent few pages you see the focus of the story change to another character. The different characters’ stories are provided for fairly and sections are split up allowing the book to move back and forth between them. The characters are as ordinary in themselves as the collective family, they each have varying interests and dreams but in war they are nothing special. Because of this you hear from the opposing side, the soldier, the traveller into exile, and the prisoner.
Hislop’s disclosure of the events that took place has been watered down enough for the disposition of readers easily affected by distressing descriptions, but only to an extent. Aeroplanes from both sides of the conflict rained down bombs, indiscriminate of the support of their victims for their parties. The aftermath of this was catastrophic but their further pursuit of the innocent when they fled their homes is incomprehensible. Hislop describes the gaping holes in massive crowds of exiled people as the planes followed their slow progress away from their native lands: the women burying their children and the suicides of those who could go no further. Being on the front line with the soldiers is only easier because of the greater publicity given to warfare. The novel also deals with the part religion played in the war. When the Nationalists took over they did so with the blessings of the Church, despite that fact that by taking over they had killed and continued to kill afterwards so many innocent people and ironically people of faith.
Without a doubt Hislop’s endeavour was to provide details of the Spanish civil war to a readership little informed, and a reminder for those who may have let it fade away. The Return will give you an insight into a long-spanning event left out of most basic curriculum. It will encourage you to see the atrocities committed, however for that you will also be welcomed into the world of Flamenco and be lead towards the beat of the music where the here and now are unwittingly left outside the confines of the bound and printed wad of paper in your hand.
Let yourself be entranced and educated, no matter how much you already know. The Return won’t let you down and yes, you will be rewarded with a happy ending. It may just be the one you’re guessing.