Thoughts: The Return, by Victoria Hislop

First finished book of 2022 and the site is back up and running, so let’s get back into the habit. There’s a 2021 roundup post in the works, but I wanted to get back into regular posting while books are fresh to avoid putting pressure on myself, and also now I have a baby (!) it’s going to be a case of posting in the in-between moments, so you’ll have to forgive the non-linear chronology. I have a little backlog of draft reviews for my 2022 books lined up, so will be posting those on a hopefully regular basis.

Oh man. So I read the blurb of The Return after I finished How to Survive a Plague (and thought yes, this is exactly what I need. Immersive award-winning historical fiction, past and present threads woven together, history I’m unfamiliar with, gimme.

And… eh. Mild spoilers ahead!

OK, so The Return is the story of Sonia in the present, in an unhappy marriage with an old, cold, status-obsessed banker, going to Granada to do a salsa course, dancing being the one thing that brings joy to her life and also being the one thing her terrible husband disapproves of. It’s also the story of the Ramirez family in the past, owners of the cafe Sonia will visit in the future, as they live through the Spanish Civil War.

I’ll start with the things I liked.

– The flamenco! Hislop wrote really gorgeously about dance in general – it was very evocative and sensual, and the flamenco sequences really brought out the intensity and strangeness of the style.
– The subject matter! As I said, I don’t know much about the Spanish Civil War and I learned a lot.
– I didn’t hate the plot! The modern thread is pretty straightforward and I saw the Twists coming, but it wasn’t a dealbreaker or anything.

So what went wrong for me?

The Return is not a slim book, but it felt rushed to me anyway. The past and present threads didn’t feel woven together at all, and the Civil War thread in particular felt as though Hislop had researched for an essay rather than a novel, and all the action happened in a dry narrative. So I think the problem here might be that the first big chunk of the book is basically Sonia on her holiday with her slightly trainwreck boho friend Maggie, learning to salsa and finding the cafe and befriending its owner. Then the owner tells her the story of the past, and we get a big chunk of The Past interspersed with Sonia going “ooh that’s awful” and having another coffee. Then like five minutes of the present once the story of the past is over, in which everything is tied up, and bish bash bosh.

That said, I wonder if the reason the historical section felt so dry and distant was because it was being told by a man who wasn’t there for most of it, so he couldn’t get too deep into the characters’ heads. Which is a valid stylistic choice – not one I think I’d have made, but valid. But in that case, wouldn’t you lean on the narrative voice itself, so that we know it’s a story being told by a charismatic storyteller? The way it is, it just felt like the worst of both worlds.

Even in the modern sections it sometimes felt like we were just being told things rather than shown them through character actions or dialogue, and from time to time it even seemed like Hislop was trying to pre-empt some weird anticipated reader gotcha. Sonia’s routine is described in a lot of detail, and at one point when she’s remembering something her dad said to her before she left on the holiday, Hislop slips in a line or two about how she’d specifically phoned him to talk about xyz, and it just felt needless? No one would have questioned it if she hadn’t explained it – it was obvious and also unimportant – but by explaining it she drew attention to it in a weird clunky way.

Speaking of weird and clunky, there are so many classic second mentions in this book. Tea is “the stewed brown liquid”. Why. Like I said, this isn’t a slender volume, so it’s not like she needed to pad – I would have much rather she used those words to deepen the historical section instead. This is a book with curves in all the wrong places.

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