Any novel by Ruta Sepetys deserves respectful attention, and this one is no exception. Expert in re-visiting some of the twentieth century’s dark corners, she has chosen Spain this time during the fag-end of Franco’s loathsome dictatorship. Her story focuses on David Matheson, a young American visiting Madrid in 1957 with his wealthy parents. An aspiring news photographer, he gradually gets to understand the nature of some of the daily injustices and cruelties happening around him. This is at a time when his own government is happy to overlook what’s going on in the interests of securing trade and defence deals. Before different sections of the novel Sepetys quotes damming contemporary evidence of this political myopia gleaned from what American diplomats were actually writing at the time. Her research is meticulous and unsparing. Reading this fine novel is of necessity not always an easy experience.
But there is also a growing love affair between David and Ana, an employee at his hotel whose own family has suffered terribly since the civil war. They all know more than is safe for them about a nasty racket involving kidnapped babies. Taken from former Republican families these are being sold off to wealthy Franco supporters as well as to the odd tourist. David does his best to expose the corruption he is increasingly aware of, but history is not on his side. He and Ana have to wait a long time before they can finally get together.
So much, so good, but also so inordinately long. Opportunities for editing down repetitive moments have not been taken and there are times when the author’s black and white characterisations become too predictable. There is also more about the art of bull-fighting than some readers may welcome. But this remains a story written with passion set in a part of history that deserves to be better understood. The story itself finishes in 1976 but the injustices it describes should never be forgotten least of all when it comes to thinking about similarly dubious regimes also operating with the West’s tacit approval in the world today.