The Return is a historical novel, set in Spain in the 1930s, that tells the story of the fictional Ramírez family, who own a bar/café in the city of Granada. Their tale is told by the present-day owner of the bar, Miguel, to an Englishwoman called Sonia, who is on a dancing holiday in Granada, escaping from marital problems.
This book has been sitting on my shelf waiting to be read for a long time. When I was at university I wrote my dissertation on La Transición – the time after Fascist dictator Franco’s death in 1975, when Spain launched itself into democracy and gender equality and all the other aspects of modern life that other European countries had been gradually developing through the 20th century. My dissertation focussed on film and photography that showed the dramatic change in the Spanish people’s freedom of expression. While I was working on the dissertation, my mum and aunts read The Return, which is set during Franco’s rise to power. Understandably, they thought it would be right up my street, and kept raving about how good it was. My head was so full of history and the Spanish works of fiction I was writing about, I had no room for an English novel on the subject, and by the time I was finished writing, I was over the whole thing!
A few weeks ago I decided I was ready for The Return, and it was worth the wait. At the beginning I was a bit nervous about the modern English characters (Sonia and her friend Maggie), as I thought there was the potential for them to turn the story into a sort-of Sex and the City style rom-com with a historical twist, but I stuck with it, and before long I was swept away by the story of the Ramírez family.
It’s apparent that Victoria Hislop did a lot of research, and she paints a vivid and compassionate picture of a family torn apart by civil war. She really makes the history come alive through such a personal story. I recognised the events, names and places mentioned, but I feel like they were cemented into my memory by engaging with them emotionally through this novel. The other aspect of The Return that I really liked was the link between past and present – sometimes these can feel very contrived, but this one felt perfectly natural and really tugged on my heart strings.
I would definitely recommend The Return, especially if you’re looking for some holiday reading that’s a bit meatier than the usual fluffy chick lit! It’s a perfect novel to immerse yourself in for a week, and is a great way of learning a bit about Spain’s recent history without any dry textbooks.