Two Women Related by Blood, Strained by Money, Split by Hardship

By Elena Medel
Translated by Lizzie Davis and Thomas Bunstead

For decades, Spain has excelled at what the travel industry calls “destination marketing.” The product on offer is the country itself, a photogenic fantasy of art and history, beaches and bullfights, Flamenco dancers and musicians, wine and tapas. The exotic sizzle reel of advertising clichés offered by Marca España — the Spain Brand, an official promotional initiative the Spanish government launched amid the depths of the Great Recession — has obscured for much of the world what life is really like for millions of Spaniards.

Elena Medel’s debut novel, “The Wonders,” stands as a corrective to this asymmetry. Spanning from 1969 to 2018, the novel immerses readers in the daily indignities of a country that has often struggled agonizingly with stagnant wages and widespread unemployment (unemployment), not to mention the legacy of the Franco dictatorship. The story follows two women related by blood but separated by circumstance: María, who gives birth to a daughter out of wedlock in the late 1960s and must leave behind her baby and her hometown de ella, Córdoba, to seek work in Madrid; and Alicia, María’s granddaughter, whose life is no less precarious or tainted by loss than that of the maternal grandmother she has never met. As these fragmented narratives elegantly graze each other without ever clicking into a fully formed picture, the two women’s lives are marked by suicide, foreclosures, menial labor, social immobility and overarching sadness. This is no sunny jaunt to Ibiza, nor does it have the mythic halo of the Alhambra.

A prominent literary voice in Spain, Medel made a name for herself in the early aughts as a prodigy of sorts. She published her first book of poetry to acclaim when she was still in her teens, then went on to write several more collections and founded the small press La Bella Warsaw. Her poetic sensibility is evident in rhythmic, incantatory prose ably translated by Lizzie Davis and Thomas Bunstead, yet she also looks at the world through a good novelist’s magnifying glass. For example, at the Atocha train station in Madrid, where Alicia works, she notes how “the people in the bathroom that costs 60 cents try hard to aim their urine stream so it stays inside the bowl: a little solidarity among the working class. ”

This observation, like so many in “The Wonders,” derives its sense of wonder (a very wry, often downcast sense of wonder) not from lofty transcendence, but from the way the tiniest details of our lives are shaped by the realities of money . Yet as we are taken into María’s and Alicia’s histories — María hiding her intelligence so as not to outshine a man, Alicia cheating on a boyfriend who can’t accept that she won’t have children — Medel probes deeper than mere economics. As an older María thinks while resisting her partner’s plea to move in with him: “It’s a question of money … and a question of power.” And the fact that women in Spain have historically enjoyed neither.

It’s no coincidence that the book’s understated climax, if you can call it that, occurs during the 2018 Women’s Strike, when Spanish women skipped work and took to the streets to protest gender inequality. In an article she published reflecting on the march, Medel lamented that there wasn’t a greater mix of generations and social classes present. By way of a brief scene involving María and Alicia near the novel’s end, it is as if she rights her disappointment de ella with reality, if floatingly, through the infinite possibilities of fiction.

“The Wonders” is not a loud, fizzy debut, and this is one of its strengths. It is a vivid and painfully intimate account of two easily overlooked lives. Medel paints a gray world of drudgery and solitude, yet she also makes room for her characters to grow into their power de ella as women, a power they discover does not in fact lie in money.

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