“Who can understand the thousand threads that join people’s souls and the significance of their words? Not the girl I was then.”- Carmen LaForet, Nada
Carmen LaForet isn’t a writer I’ve ever come across but I figured if Mario Vargas Llosa wrote the foreword to this book she must be good. And I’d definitely recommend this book although I think it would have been better had I known more about the Spanish Civil War and Spain during the Franco period. Despite that, I enjoyed the book immensely. It follows the life, from age 18, of Spanish orphan Andrea who moves to Barcelona from a Spanish convent, to live with her uncles and grandmother. It’s Barcelona in the 1940s and it’s a place of despair after the war. Andrea finds herself living on Calle de Aribau in a dilapidated house cloaked in poverty, secrets, mental illness, and plenty of cruelty and maliciousness:
“And you haven’t even realized that I have to know–that in fact I do know–everything, absolutely everything, that goes on downstairs. Everything Gloria feels, all of Angustia’s ridiculous stories, everything Juan suffers…Haven’t you realized that I manage all of them, that I arrange their nerves, their thoughts?”
The mystery and the atmosphere in the book was quite wonderful. I’ve never been to Barcelona but from the pictures I’ve seen of the city, it’s a bright and cheerful-looking place, in stark contrast with how it’s depicted in the book . You have sentences like “Elongated, quiet, and sad, like the lights at a village wake” to describe the book’s setting and it seems so unlikely. The descriptions of house on Calle de Aribau in particular, are very powerful:
“The memory of nights on Calle de Aribau comes to me now. Those nights that ran like a black river beneath the bridges of the days, nights when stagnant odours gave off the breath of ghosts.”
I also found the coming of age story of Andrea, the friendless orphan who becomes an adult in another city, very interesting. As she deals with the disappointment of having a kooky family, she navigates a new city in which she is exposed to many new things, especially in her academic life. This is all part of her journey and it’s not an easy one.
I like stories like this, stories that have strange characters and hidden secrets. It’s a lesson in trying to understand why people are the way they are, and also in trying to figure out hidden secrets.