Monday, 8 September 2014

The Return, by Victoria Hislop

I got "The Return" by V. Hislop as a summer present. At 500 pages, I was slightly intimidated whether I would be able to finish it during my holidays. In addition, I was cautious about the content, as I had not really liked her first book "The Island". But then I was intrigued: reading the back cover, I read that the storyline included Spain's Franco and the story of a family during this difficult time…

I needn't have worried: the book reads very easily… perhaps too easily, as I finished it within a few days. The first 100 pages, though, have nothing to do with the main theme of the book: we are introduced to Sonia and Maggie, and their first encounter with Latin dance lessons in Granada, Spain.

Through a casual conversation with Miguel, the owner of a little café there, Sonia learns more about the Franco era, a dictatorship that remains a dark spot in Spain's history, when thousands of people were murdered. Sonia becomes really interested in his descriptions, while Maggie prefers to just have a good time. Back in the UK, Maggie announces that she's going back to Spain to live with the love of her life (not!) and try her destiny in Granada, leaving poor Sonia to face a husband who's no longer loving her…

All that is nice, but I could not feel they contributed to the book, and could have easily been skipped – or heavily reduced. And I start having a strange feeling: this reads like a chick-lit (nothing wrong in that), while the back cover allured to historical fiction. Let's see…

There is one person in Sonia: her father, and he's really keen in the dance lessons the girls had in Granada. He reveals that Sonia's late mother and he were a dancing couple and he thus starts talking about the old times and showing her pictures. Here is the turning point: One of these pictures looks very familiar to Sonia: she saw it back in the café in Granada. When Maggie sends her a message to join her in Spain, Sonia has no hesitation. She leaves her husband, takes the plane to Granada and looks for Miguel. She wants to hear his stories about the Ramirez family during the Franco period.

The book gets to its main subject: the story of Pablo and Conche Ramirez, the previous owners of the café and their children Ignacio, Antonio, Emilio and Mercedes. The personal struggles, the political aspirations and Mercedes' infatuation with young gypsy Javier, all mix with the rise of the Second Republic and the first signs of General Franco. While major political changes are taking place, the book focuses on the story of the family and the balance among its members.

 Mercedes will be the only surviving member of this family and she will immigrate to the UK (how she managed that is slightly over-the-top, but I'll accept the "poetic licence"). She will learn English, find a job and start dancing with a nice English boy (hint hint…). She will stop looking for Javier and settle with her English family.

 We are brought back to the present, and Sonia will also find herself in a much unexpected situation after her discussions with Miguel. She also accepts her fate – it's obvious what she must do (albeit, a little too hurriedly).

On the whole, this is a fair book, to read carelessly (perfect for the summer). As it focuses on the story of the family, however, I would have preferred that either more historical facts were included, or that the Franco era was not used as background at all. For my taste, this was more of a romantic novel, with some hints of history sprinkled throughout.

What I keep from this book:
On the negative side – someone discovering their family tree while in the middle of nowhere
On the positive side – I actually started reading about the Franco era in detail…

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