Having spent most of our recent Women in Translation Month stop in Egypt on the city streets, it’s time for a change of pace, something the next leg of the journey promises to provide. Today we’re off to Spain to spend some time in the country in the company of a pair of sisters returning to their home village. However, while the air is fresh (and the milk is even fresher), it’s not all bucolic frivolity. These women have some pretty dark secrets, and they’re about to be revealed…
Cristina Sánchez-Andrade’s The Winterlings (translated by Samuel Rutter, review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications) begins with two women returning one morning to Tierra de Chá, a small village in Galicia. After a few years in England, and many more in the city of Coruña, the sisters have come back to claim their grandfather’s house and settle down to a quiet life in the countryside.
The village is the same as ever, and as the Winterlings (as the locals call them) reconnect with old friends and slip into the comfortable, monotonous lifestyle, it seems as if they never went away. But why have they chosen to return after so long away, and is there something they’re running away from? The locals want answers, particularly as the presence of the sisters has stirred up a long-forgotten secret that is making life in the small village unbearable…
The Winterlings takes the reader and transports them to a very different world, a village in Galicia that time almost seems to have passed by. The story is set at some point in the twentieth century (more on that later), yet given the traditional lifestyle, revolving around work, chores and gossip, it could be taking place at any time over the past few centuries. It’s a society the two sisters, Saladina and Dolores, struggle to adapt to, but having made the decision to come back, they have no choice but to rejoin the flock:
“Are you calling us sheep?” said the Winterlings in unison. The priest took in everything with a glance: the house, the orchard, the chickens. The fig tree twisted and sprawled over the house, its branches invading the windows without panes.
“You’re very lonely out here…”
“We’d be even more lonely without loneliness,” they replied.
“We’re all sheep, or we end up becoming them. It’s good to be part of the flock; it’s warm and gives comfort,” said Don Manuel, taking up the handle of the cart again.
p.56 (Scribe Publications, 2016)
Gradually, the circle widens, as we are introduced to more of the villagers, either at the local bar or on their visits to the sisters’ house. There’s a gluttonous priest, an incompetent, cuckolded teacher, a half-mad chicken expert – and they’re among the more sensible ones…
The crux of the novel is the way the arrival of the Winterlings acts as a catalyst to bring festering wounds to the surface. Known but unknown, the sisters pose a problem to the villagers, who find it hard to work out how to handle them; after all, it’s not often that English-speaking, city-dwelling women cross their paths. More than this, though, it’s the mysterious death of the girl’s grandfather, Don Reinaldo, that really concerns the locals. Many of them remember a promise they made to the old man, and now they fear that the sisters might insist on holding them to their word.
The two women, however, have their own issues. Saladina, the elder sister, is secretly tormented by her ugly appearance, wishing she could do something about her dentures and her stomach pains. Dolores, the younger of the two, is described as a beauty, and her dream of becoming an actress may be about to come true, with the possibility of becoming an extra on an Ava Gardner film being filmed in Spain. Yet these concerns can never make them forget certain secrets from the past:
“Listen Sala, …”
And the other replies:
“That day, do you think…”
“Do you think we did the right thing, Sala?”
“We did what we had to do, Dolores.” (p.29)
The sisters have plenty of dark experiences overshadowing their present, but one in particular has followed them to the village – and may eventually bring their downfall.
The Winterlings is a book of deaths and secrets, with the two often going hand in hand. Some, such as the fate of poor Don Reinaldo and the truth behind Dolores’ short-lived marriage, are slightly sinister; others, such as what the dental mechanic Mr. Tenderlove gets up to in his free time, slightly less so. It’s also a slightly bizarre story in places, with a grotesque obsession with teeth, brains and witchcraft (not your average country romance…). While I found the going a little slow in the first half, it gets there eventually, but the constant back and forth nature of the novel, added to the very slow release of information, can make for frustrating reading at times.
Another issue that puzzled me a little was connected with the movie (Pandora and the Flying Dutchman) that Dolores hoped to work on. The film is real and was filmed in Catalonia in 1951, but the numbers don’t add up. Early in the novel, we’re told that the sisters left for England in 1936 and returned to Tierra de Chá almost thirty years later – meaning that the story should be happening in the early/mid sixties. Is this an error, or is the writer deliberately muddying the waters here? I’m honestly not sure.
Chronological issues aside, The Winterlings is an interesting novel many readers will enjoy, even if it took me a while to warm to it. It’s a tale of how the return of the native(s) can upset the equilibrium, but also of the love sisters have for each other, despite the occasional frustration:
For a while, their hands intertwined in the soapy water, seeking each other out like fish, brushing against each other.
“Are they my fingers or yours?” said one Winterling.
“What difference does it make?” answered the other, after some thought.
They both started laughing. (p.235)
A problem shared is a problem halved, they say. Sadly, I’m not convinced that this applies to what these women are concealing…