Those of you who have followed my blog for some time know that my husband and I travel periodically to Galicia, in the northwest corner of Spain, and also to Braga, Portugal, where I've set my cozy mystery, Deadly Vintage. In truth, we are enamored of Spain and Portugal—partly for the sense of antiquity in old stone and tile; also the echoes of political history; but mainly for the embracing warmth of the people in both countries.
So I have read these books — devoured them, really — and reflected on the worlds they open up.
I'll start with The Time In Between by María Dueñas, first. — a very long book (reader be warned), but worth every page It starts out like a love story, perhaps even a family saga, then swiftly moves into a spy story that takes a reader to Morocco and returns one to Madrid during the early Franco years in Spain.
The protagonist, Sira Quiroja, makes a romantic mistake early on in the book, and it changes her entire future. The way she develops throughout the novel suggests that, looking back, it was the best mistake she could have made to escape a life of boredom and acceptance of Franco's coming regime. But, at the time of her tribulations, of course, how could she know?
The story is compelling as it unfolds, and the writing captures moments in a way that makes you want to return to them. It's a long book — 609 pages — but worth the read. And the re-read! I have no doubt that I will re-read this book more than once, partly for the delicious story, and partly for appreciation of what makes a good novel tick. And, incidentally, I learned quite a bit of history in a painless, engrossing way.
Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier is a completely different kind of experience. It's a philosophical novel, one that gives you a mental massage and makes you think, page by page. To some readers, it could be upsetting or boring, but I loved it.
The protagonist, Raymond Gregorius, a lonely, divorced professor of classical languages at a Swiss lycée, encounters a woman on a bridge who seems about to leap and end her life. He learns she is Portuguese and becomes pulled into her mystery. Because of that, he becomes intrigued by the very idea of Portugal.
The discovery in a bookshop of an arcane book by a Portuguese writer, Amadeu de Prado, sets Gregorius off on a journey to Lisbon to learn more about Prado, as the book seems to speak to Gregorius's very soul. No doubt Gregorius is having a midlife crisis of sorts, but he takes the leap and takes a train to Lisbon, where he encounters those who knew the author and unravels Prado's personal tale. In the process, Gregorius unravels his own story.
As I said, this is a philosophical novel. A reader journeys into both Gregorius's and Prado's self-doubts, doubts about God, probings of the layers of one's identity and value systems, and the questioning of existence and meaning. Some readers might find this tedious but I was swept along into the questions and the earnest attempts of Gregorius (and Prado) to answer them. In that sense, this is a lovely book, and for the philosophically inclined, one that merits more than one reading.
The beauty of novels and most fiction, I think, is in the opportunity to enter someone else's reality and have your own world stretched beyond the familiar horizons. In this sense, both of these books excel. I can't wait to begin each one again — and maybe even again. The writing is lovely in both, and in both, worlds unfold.
Have you experienced special books like that? Books that enlarge your world, stretch your mind, open up history for you and make you think? Any good titles to share?