Jhere are two stories in this novel, but each has been cut out, and the two sets of fragments mixed together. They form a composite picture as frustrating and as full of brilliant moments of enlightenment as those church stained glass windows where restorers have reassembled the shards left by the cudgels of iconoclasts, making a collage of unrelated pieces. Here, the hands of a saint held out in blessing; there the mocking grimace of a devil with a muzzle; a scattering of lovingly executed pieces of drapery; everywhere glimpses of sky, earth, bright colors.
Spanish author Elena Medel is a poet, and she has a poetic preference for the meaningful moment over the sustained narrative. In her debut novel, she gives us vignettes of two women, each moving to Madrid in search of a fresh start. María is Alicia’s grandmother, but they don’t know each other. In the last section, they will meet, unknowingly, during the women’s strike of 2018, only to then pass by. Their lives echo each other – both abandoning ambition, exhausted by grueling menial jobs, both emotionally content with mediocre men – but they are also polar opposites.
Maria is “a simple heart” – undemanding, kind, patient. Alicia is resentful, reserved, driven by contempt for others and herself. María’s story is a feminist parable: a blameless girl, seduced and exploited, eventually finds self-respect in middle age as the co-founder of a women’s group. Alicia’s story is darker – an over-privileged girl receives a horrific reward and shuts down emotionally, choosing a numbing job over anything that might awaken her angry intelligent mind, and refusing love in favor of sexual promiscuity.
Their interwoven stories are told in a variety of unreliable voices and out of chronological order. As an adult, Alicia is known to dream each night of a hanging body, swaying horribly, long before she finds out that her father hanged himself, and even longer before she learns that Alicia herself – fresh from high school – was hung by a peg from a gymnasium roof beam by kids who hated her for her arrogance. Time folds and folds back on itself. We see both women put up with their men’s weaknesses before we see them meet those men. We only learn obliquely, and in a confused order, the story of the life of the middle woman – Carmen, who is María’s daughter and Alicia’s mother, and who was abandoned by both.
The effect of this fragmentation is to turn the lives of these individual women into a collective image of working-class Spanish femininity. With light touches, Medel conveys gradual yet enormous change. Alicia’s great-uncle remembers when their neighborhood in Cordoba had no sewers. Two women discuss office cleaning jobs and vote for communism as they line up to pee in a bar toilet. The spread of Madrid’s public transport system is keenly felt, not from an urban planning perspective, but in the aching feet and backs of women traveling after a late shift, in buses dropping them off far from home, with a scary walk still to be done along poorly lit streets with too many dark doors.
The book works best as a sequence of short stories. The passages where Medel quickly transports us through the years become hazy, but when she slows down and tightens her focus, particular incidents shine. The old woman María takes care of wants to wear a special dress for her saint’s day. Their relationship is portrayed with a delicate appreciation of its complexity – the pathos, the boredom, the tenderness and the exasperation. Finally buttoned up in her red dress, the old woman dies. General Franco is also dead and in good health. Everyone went to see him; eventually María finds another servant to help her. The two women identify themselves by the names and addresses of their employers: “I am the daughter of Doña Sisi from the 3rd floor. Charged with the management of life and death, they still mean too little, even to themselves, to merit a proper introduction.
This is a book that escapes casual summary. It’s about poverty, but Alicia’s nature is warped by being relatively wealthy. It’s about feminism, but the two holiest characters are men: María’s brother, Chico, raising the baby she can’t afford to keep, sacrificing his own college hopes and a career in ‘teacher ; her lover Pedro, ruining his chances with her by being so consistently kind to her helpless old parents and her mentally ill brother.
Like the society it describes, Medel’s novel is hard. It is sometimes confusing. He falls into generalizations about sexual politics or capitalism. But like this shattered and remade stained glass window, it has a boldly ingenious structure and bursts of beauty.