Review: ‘The Return’ by Victoria Hislop

I admit to being extremely ignorant about the Spanish Civil War, which is perhaps understandable when it’s in an era and geographical location surrounded by the Hitler and Mussolini, whose crimes are far more well-known. Enter Victoria Hislop, who makes that turbulent period in Spanish history accessible to all through her charming and touching novel.

The story of the Ramirez family is beautifully woven together in order to explore the fates of four children divided by political, social and emotional loyalties. Each story adds a unique angle to the Civil War, meaning that no one side is overrepresented in the family – we see radicalism, ignorance and passivity under one roof. That said, the novel is, naturally, biased towards the freedom offered by the Republican government – who couldn’t be in the face of the devastation created by power lust and lack of regard for personal liberty? I like that no frills are added to the story, making its gritty relation to the historical facts even stronger – no one is given a happy ending, instead the focus is on how endings are eventually reached without promising anything of the world.

What I disliked was the frame narrative. I do appreciate that the Ramirez story would have suffered without some rhyme or reason to it being told, but Sonia’s involvement tainted the tattered endings we received by wrapping things in a neat little bow; just because times have changed doesn’t mean it’s easier to break free of our own personal restrictions, whether it’s flitting off to Granada whenever we fancy or leaving someone without expecting repercussions.

I also didn’t like Sonia herself. I found her flat and too functional, which is perhaps why I would deny her a happily ever after, because I didn’t feel she’d earned it throughout the novel, unlike Mercedes. She was imposed on a landscape that coincidentally happened to be wrapped in her history, which was a ploy too far really.

That said, I did enjoy this book – it gave a rather unique look into a devastating conflict, giving a history lesson framed in an intense narrative to make it all the more engaging and emotionally resonating, and it’s certainly a topic I’d love to explore further based on Victoria Hislop’s introduction to it.


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