I came across this novel via the Women’s Literature blog Literary Friction and their August translation spot. It’s a novel set in Barcelona and Cadaqués, where I spent some time hanging around in my youth, and so I tuned in to the theme of a woman in early middle age going up to Cadaqués to mourn the loss of her mother.
The first person narrator and main protagonist is 40 year old Blanca and the novel begins at her mother’s funeral which takes place in Cadaqués, a charming fishing village and desirable holiday spot north of Barcelona on the Costa Brava. This first chapter sets the scene and tone for the rest of the book as Blanca reflects on her mother’s life and their relationship, while the mourners at the funeral prompt recollections from the past about her mother’s ‘progressive’ friends, the summers of laughter and dinners till dawn, cards, drinking and skinny dipping. The ache of her own loss is vividly expressed when she addresses her mother directly: ‘Mum, you promised that when you died my life would be on track and structured, that the pain would be bearable. You never said I would feel like ripping my guts out and eating them’. And sometimes the intimacy is comedic, as when she explains to her Mum why they can’t bury her dog, Patum with her- ‘This isn’t Pharaoh’s Egypt, you know…if you stop to think about it, she’s a big dog and she would never have fitted in the niche- I can just imagine the two undertakers pushing her in the bum to squish her in’. While Blanca’s eyes rove over the crowd gathered to wish her Mum farewell, they linger over the one interesting man there, a stranger, and she feels her ‘radar’ honing in on him. For this too is Blanca, sexually active and open to adventures, even at her mother’s funeral.
The narrative then follows Blanca back to her flat in Barcelona, where she’s having an affair with Oscar, the father of one of her sons. (Both he and her married lover Santi have other partners, but this doesn’t bother Blanca who just enjoys sex). It is Oscar who suggests that Blanca goes up to spend some time at her mother’s house in Cadaqués- and agrees to join her there. So she gathers together a group consisting of her sons, friends and ex lovers and they drive up there-while all the time Blanca is talking to her mother in her head, poignant and tender recollections, interspersed with the occasional allusions to those sad hard last months of illness, immobility and, finally, mental deterioration.
The house at Cadaqués is a kind of ancestral home, where ‘memories tangle into a tight blanket that for once doesn’t smother me’. Blanca describes the sensuous plenty of growing up there : ‘there was Marisa’s gazpacho, and the eternal bread – and -butter breakfasts, the railing bedecked in a colourful garland of drying beach towels, the naps that were taken only reluctantly, dressing up to go to town, the afternoon ice cream, archery practice’, then as adolescents, ‘the first loves, the first sunrises, the first drugs..’ . Memories of her strong and generous mother in her prime mingle with sadder and more recent memories: when her mother grew old and ill, the house closed its doors a little and grew old with her.
But while her mother and loss is ever present, Blanca does not spend all her time alone and grieving. She is enjoying drinking, partying and flirting with men, old friends and new, living out the maxim that ‘the only thing that momentarily alleviates the sting of death -and life- without leaving a hangover is sex.’ So she comes across ‘the beautiful stranger’ at the funeral and makes a play for him as well as reconnecting with old friend Nacho. Now, while there is a lot of sex in the book which irked some reviewers on Good Reads, I would say that the boundaries between friendship and sex are interestingly fluid and Blanca’s lovers of old are also looking after her, aware of her loss. The sex is part of a lifestyle which is anarchic and hedonistic , but one in which all friendships and relationships are valued, relationships with women friends, her children, not to mention with her dogs.
Because for me, Blanca’s sex life is not at issue. Maybe she’s looking for it more right now to heal her, maybe her radar is always switched on. The emotional power of this short novel lies rather in the way her mother lives on in her consciousness, the conversations she has with her, her presence. And the epilogue is a powerful paean to her, ‘you taught me the love of art, of books, museums, the ballet, absolute generosity with money, grand gestures at the appropriate time, precision in action and in words…you gave me the gift of this outrageous laugh, the thrill of being alive, the ability to surrender to things completely, the love of games…. and a sense of fairness. Nonconformity. The dazzling awareness of joy at the moment you have it in your hand, before it flies away’. But it is also about what heals-sex, friendship, pleasure, memories- and the natural beauty of a place like Cadaqués.