There are two stories in this novel, but each one has been cut up, and the two sets of fragments shuffled together. They form a composite picture as frustrating, and as full of brilliant moments of illumination, as those church windows where conservators have reassembled the shards left behind by iconoclasts’ cudgels, making a collage of unrelated pieces. Here a saint’s hands reaching out in blessing; there the leering grimace of a snouted devil; a scattering of pieces of drapery lovingly executed; everywhere glimpses of sky, of dirt, of bright colour.
Spanish author Elena Medel is a poet, and she has a poet’s preference for the significant moment over the sustained narrative. In her first novel, she gives us vignettes of two women, each of whom moves to Madrid in search of a new start. María is Alicia’s grandmother, but they don’t know each other. In the final section they will meet, unknowingly, during the 2018 women’s strike, only to pass on by. Their lives echo each other – both of them abandoning ambition, worn down by exhausting menial jobs, both making do emotionally with mediocre men – but they are also opposites.
María is “un coeur simple” – undemanding, kind, patient. Alicia is spiteful, guarded, driven by contempt for others and for herself. María’s story is a feminist parable: 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 overprivileged girl gets a horrific comeuppance and shuts down emotionally, choosing numbing work over anything that might reawaken her clever, angry mind, and refusing love in favour of promiscuous sex.
Their interleaved stories are told in a variety of unreliable voices, and out of chronological order. We know that as an adult Alicia dreams every night about a suspended body, swaying horribly, long before we discover that her father hanged himself, and even longer before we hear that Alicia herself – newly arrived at secondary school – was hung up by an ankle from a roof beam in the gym by children who hated her for her arrogance. Time pleats and folds back on itself. We see both women putting up with their men’s weaknesses before we see them meeting those men. We learn only obliquely, and in jumbled order, the life story of the intermediate woman – Carmen, who is María’s daughter and Alicia’s mother, and has been left behind by them both.
The effect of this fragmentation is to make of these individual women’s lives a collective picture of working-class Spanish womanhood. With light touches Medel conveys gradual but tremendous change. Alicia’s great uncle remembers when their neighbourhood in Córdoba had no sewers. Two women discuss office-cleaning jobs and voting for communism as they queue up to pee in a bar’s single toilet. The spread of Madrid’s public transport system is felt vividly, not from the city-planning point of view, but in the aching feet and backs of women travelling after a late shift, on buses that deposit them a long way from home, with a frightening walk still to be done along ill-lit streets with too many dark doorways.
The book works best as a sequence of short stories. The passages when Medel carries us swiftly through the years become muzzy, but when she slows down and tightens her focus particular incidents shine out. The old woman María cares for wants to wear a special dress for her saint’s day. Their relationship is described with a delicate appreciation of its complexity – the pathos, the tedium, the tenderness and the exasperation. Finally buttoned into her red dress, the old woman dies. General Franco has died too, and is lying in state. Everyone has gone 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’m Doña Sisi’s girl from the 3rd floor.” Entrusted with the management of life and death, they are still of too little account, even to themselves, to merit proper introduction.
This is a book that evades glib summary. It is about poverty, but Alicia’s nature is distorted by being comparatively rich. It is about feminism, but the two most saintly characters are men: María’s brother Chico, bringing up the baby she cannot afford to keep, sacrificing his own hopes of college and a teaching career; her lover Pedro, spoiling his chances with her by being so steadily good to his helpless old parents and mentally ill brother.
Like the society it describes, Medel’s novel is harsh. It is sometimes confusing. It lapses into generalisations about sexual politics or capitalism. But like that smashed and remade stained-glass window, it has a boldly ingenious structure and flashes of beauty.