Title: The Return
Author: Victoria Hislop
Publisher: Headline Review
Release Date: April 2009
Genre: Historical Fiction
My Rating: 5/10 Begrudgingly Finished
An atmospheric, vibrant and moving tale of pain and passion at the heart of war-torn Spain, from Victoria Hislop, the million-copy bestselling author of The Island.
Beneath the majestic towers of the Alhambra, Granada’s cobbled streets resonate with music and secrets. Sonia Cameron knows nothing of the city’s shocking past; she is here to dance. But in a quiet café, a chance conversation and an intriguing collection of old photographs draw her into the extraordinary tale of Spain’s devastating civil war.
Seventy years earlier, the café is home to the close-knit Ramírez family. In 1936, an army coup led by Franco shatters the country’s fragile peace, and in the heart of Granada the family witnesses the worst atrocities of conflict. Divided by politics and tragedy, everyone must take a side, fighting a personal battle as Spain rips itself apart.
This is the first Victoria Hislop novel I’ve read, despite being recommended several times. I love good romantic historical fiction – where you’re desperately rooting for the characters whilst learning about a distinct moment in history. The Return had a lot of promise. It is set during the Spanish Civil War, of which I know very little about – good so far. It has a closely entwined couple staring deeply into each others eyes on the cover – second plus. Decent rating on Goodreads – always a positive. Recommended by my mum as one of her favourites – we usually like the same books, particularly when it comes to historical fiction. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I was left with nothing but disappointment.
We begin in 2001, with Sonia who’s having marriage troubles and goes on a weekend break with her best friend to Granada to brush up on their salsa skills and see some flamenco. This ‘modern day’ section (Modern? It’s 20 years ago now!) seems unnecessary and a little forced when linked with the historical element, and although the conversations with the gentleman in the cafe (I’ll avoid spoilers and say no more) are charming, and the descriptions of the flamenco filled with incredible detail, I found myself wondering over 100 pages in when the story was actually going to begin. I came here to read about the Spanish Civil War, not endless pages of flamenco dancers sweating and gazing forlornly into the crowd.
When we finally do jump backwards 70 years, everything seems a little confused. The Ramirez family is fairly large, with parents and four children, and Hislop takes a great deal of time introducing each member in turn. Telling us what their interests are, what they do for a living and who they’re friends with. Overall the detail is too heavy. I began to struggle to remember which brother was friends with who, and which ones didn’t get on, and which had what friends. I was bored and confused by this point.
We’re almost halfway through the 600 page novel before the romantic element is introduced and the story shows signs of revealing itself. After the family introductions, we spend the next 100 pages or so engaged (or not) in an encyclopaedic summary of 1930s Spain, so dull that I had to skim through most of it. Tenuous mentions of the Ramirez family are made, but only in passing. I could barely keep up with who’s side everyone was on, and struggled to recognise names of leaders and politicians that I knew must have been mentioned before. There was no story here – just description.
When the romance is finally introduced, it’s rushed. The very early beginnings of Mercedes and Javier’s relationship show promise, and I started to think ‘ah, here we go, this is what I’ve been waiting for’. After the initial meeting, however, the relationship is skimmed over in favour of more encyclopaedic description. It falls desperately flat, and makes Mercedes’ actions for the rest of the story (what little story there is) seem odd and overdramatic. There was no passion or charisma in their relationship, and we only felt anything at all from Mercedes. Javier’s thoughts and feelings were completely absent.
The final 200 pages or so, the story does start to pick up, and we see more action rather than description. I enjoyed this section most, and wish the whole book had been written like this – with history told through the characters actions, rather than alongside. I learnt a great deal in these pages about the war, in a way that was much easier to follow, and began to feel a little for the characters.
Overall, I’m left with some knowledge of the Spanish Civil War that I didn’t have before, and a profound desire to never pick up another Victoria Hislop book again.