Many of the most acclaimed novels to come out of Spain in recent years are what you might call ‘aftermath fiction’, concerned with the legacies of the Civil War and/or the Second World War. Of these, Almudena Grandes’ The Frozen Heart certainly has more reach than most, finding the sort of wide readership that literary fiction rarely attains. Grandes, who died just a year ago, was a huge seller in Spanish and was widely translated around the world. And it’s easy to see why. The Frozen Heart is a very winning book – extremely busy and totally immersive. It begins with a kind of question – Who is that young woman who’s just shown up at the funeral of the narrator’s father? – and answers it, gradually, over the course of its seven hundred-plus pages. But it’s not really this mystery that drives the reading. It’s a love story, at least in part; and it’s a story about revenge (but is it, really?); and it’s a story about how the many characters got to where they are. It’s about inheritance – both in a literal, concrete sense, but also in terms of how the present is complicated by what occurred in decades past, and whether that past is something we hold on to, or try our best to escape.
Grandes’ narrative leaps about in time, with forty-year-old Álvaro (a physics professor and ‘an ordinary guy’) as first-person narrator of the ‘present’ section, which is intercut with an evolving 1940s wartime storyline. As we see connections made, this becomes a book of revelations, both for the reader and for the characters themselves. We discover Álvaro’s background, and that of investment manager Raquel (especially about her grandfather), in the process meeting two families who fought (and made terrible sacrifices) on opposite sides of the same war. Álvaro learns about the new people he meets, but he also finds out more about people he thought he’s known, well, forever; and as he does, many of his deepest certainties – about his father, about his own priorities – are wrenched out of place.
There’s a lot for Álvaro to take in – as there is for us. Like many family sagas, The Frozen Heart takes its time getting where it’s going; it is not an economical piece of storytelling. There are backstories and more backstories, constantly shifting family tensions (sometimes very well depicted), countless relationships introduced and explained (lots of glimpses of love affairs, which we rarely dwell on for long), with twists and turns both dramatic and trivial. New, temporarily central characters suddenly appear several hundred pages in, as the story expands, and fills out, its centre of gravity shifting. When we do stay put long enough to see a relationship develop, it’s engaging and even affecting; and episodically there’s some dynamism to the telling (thanks also to the light touch of its translator, Frank Wynne), so the haltingness of the big-picture story isn’t too much of a concern. While you’re waiting for the pieces to come together, though, the structure can at times feel chaotic, so if you’re looking for something tight and focused, this is not the novel for you. If you’re not in a hurry, however, it offers a wealth of rewards.
Reviewed by Daniel Hahn
THE FROZEN HEART
By Almudena Grandes
Translated by Frank Wynne
Published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson (2010)
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Daniel Hahn is a writer, editor and translator, with some 50 books to his name. Recent books include the new Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature.
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