Tales of Granada in ‘The Return’ by Victoria Hislop
I’ve recently got into reading Victoria Hislop novels, after a recommendation from my grandmother who knew that I love stories, books and films set in foreign countries, and particularly in countries that I know and love.
So, after several years of not reading a single book in English (I would feel guilty during my degree that it wasn’t contributing to my studies, so I always made myself read a foreign translation of an English novel), once I graduated I began in earnest to make my way through a 4-year-long “to-read list”, most of which had been compiled for me by my grandmother – a voracious reader.
The Return by Victoria Hislop was high on the list as it’s set in Granada, Spain. The plot centres around the plight of the Ramírez family who run a café in Granada, a stunning Moorish city in Andalucía, during the Second Republic and the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, and then into Franco’s dictatorship which didn’t end until 1975. The plot is framed by the story of modern-day Sonia, an English woman who visits Granada and stumbles upon an elderly man, who becomes the narrator of the Ramirez family story.
Having studied the Spanish Civil War at university (when you study a language you normally learn about the history, culture and literature attached to that language as well) I already knew the facts: the struggles and sieges of each of the various cities, the progress Franco’s Nationalists made, the involvement of the Germans and the Italians on the right, and of the International Brigades and the Russians on the left.
What a history textbook doesn’t tend to teach you however is the emotional impact and the distress that the civil war caused for individual communities and citizens. Victoria Hislop herself is English and as far as I can tell hasn’t ever ‘lived’ in Spain, but according to her website it took her 2 years and 68 books to fully research this novel.
And to my eyes, the eyes of someone who has lived in Andalucía, albeit in Córdoba, a city 2 hours away, she seems to have captured it pretty well. Granted, her over-emphasis on the typical stereotypes of the bullfighters, the flamenco dancers and the guitarists did grate on me quite a bit but I imagine unfortunately that those aspects are probably what are required to make a book a commercial success with an English readership, who only know about the stereotypes.
Her use of Sonia’s character, the modern-day visitor to Granada really puts the central plot into perspective – and left me feeling disappointed that I belong to Sonia’s world (which ultimately is nothing to be too pleased about) and that the world of the Ramírez family will never again exist.
Despite the odd flaw in the novel, it has been very successful for a reason, it’s educational and is a lovely escape for an imagination that’s bored of the familiarity of “home”, wherever that may be for you. I feel that my generation know very little about the Spanish Civil War, as it was overshadowed pretty quickly by the horrors of the Second World War.
I thoroughly recommend you read this book, and you can buy it on here on Amazon. Push through the pages focussed on Sonia’s life, which are nothing special and you’ll reach the true story, which is far more beautiful.
Next up on the “to-read list” is another book by Victoria Hislop: The Thread.