When Sonia, a middle-aged British woman struggling to find space within her own marriage, travels to Spain for her friend’s birthday, stories of Granada’s vivid past are awakened — and her innate love of dancing is encouraged and ignited.
When Sonia meets elderly Miguel, the owner of a local cafe, she takes an immediate interest in the dynamic photos hanging on the walls of his shop — and those of the young woman in many of them. Over time, Miguel shares with her the heartbreaking stories of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), focusing particularly on the Ramirez family — the original owners of the cafe he took over many decades earlier. Concha and Pablo ran their shop in relative security with their four children: Antonio, the kind eldest son; Ignacio, the tempestuous bull fighter; Emilio, the gentle guitarist; and Mercedes, their fiery young flamenco dancer and only daughter. As the war rages on and politics begin to consume the Ramirez family, and all of Spain, the fates of each are decided.
Victoria Hislop’s The Return is an engrossing work of historical fiction that drops you immediately onto the cobbled streets of Spain, slipping you seamlessly into the bullfighting ring with Ignacio or in a dank space with Mercedes, pounding out a rhythm with Javier, her love — and famed guitar player. As conditions worsen, troops move into town and the peaceful life they knew evaporates, the story focuses on elements of survival — and how each must come to terms with where the future will take them.
Hislop’s descriptions are so vivid and piercing, much of the language stopped me dead in my tracks. Though much of the imagery was, unfortunately, harrowing, I can’t say I expected anything different in a novel about war. One of my favorite descriptions:
Eventually, terrified of what was happening above them but fearful of remaining for too long below, people would come up into the light, emerging into a street where buildings had been dissected like cakes with a carving knife.
I wouldn’t have paired cake with war, but hey — it works. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg with Hislop’s colorful, moving prose! Her descriptions of Mercedes’ passion for Javier definitely pulled at my heart, and I breathed shallowly through each of their love-tense scenes. As battles continue and the war takes them farther from one another, I hoped right along with our young dancer that they would find each other again.
Going into The Return, my knowledge of the Spanish Civil War was confined to the fact that I knew there had been one; I couldn’t have told you anything at all about it. After finishing the novel, I definitely have a sense of the horrors of what happened there . . . particularly in regard to Guernica, something I once studied but had forgotten. Hislop does a masterful job of weaving the war’s events into the backdrop of our Ramirez clan, always keeping it in context to what they were going through. In this way, it never felt dull or pedantic; because I was waiting to see what would befall Mercedes, for example, I made my way quickly through the historical scenes to glean as much as I could about what would probably happen to her.
It’s interesting that Hislop chose to tell the story from a modern perspective — and, in particular, through Miguel’s recollections. As the Ramirez stories flowed, I was glad there was minimal interruption or “switching” from the past to the present, where Miguel and Sonia were spending the day in Granada as he told her the tales. If there had been more back-and-forth, it would have felt jarring; as it stands, I loved it. And plenty of unexpected twists in the story kept me reading quickly.
A fantastic, sweeping story that will draw you into a much different time and place. I was completely captivated and, though I tend to shy away from stories of war, adored spending so much time in Spain. Lovers of historical fiction will delight in the incredibly detailed descriptions, and readers will absorb this story of family, politics, faith, passion and, ultimately, redemption.
4.5 out of 5!
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours