‘The Winterlings’ by Cristina Sánchez-Andrade was one of my Women in Translation Month reads in August and my rather belated review is finally here. Translated from the Spanish by Samuel Rutter, it tells the story of two sisters, Saladina and Dolores, from the small rural village of Tierra de Chá in Galicia in north-west Spain. After living in England for several years during and after the Spanish Civil War, the Winterlings, as they are known, eventually return to their grandfather’s cottage as adults in the 1950s. However, the sisters have secrets about why they have decided to come back while the villagers are equally evasive about what happened to their grandfather during the war.
When I look back on books by Spanish authors I have read, I think of the complex and dense wordiness of authors like Javier Marías or the bleak sparseness of Out in the Open by Jesús Carrasco. Sánchez-Andrade’s inventive prose in ‘The Winterlings’ falls somewhere in between, allowing her to carve out her own distinctive style in the process. The story becomes increasingly dark, absurd and grotesque with some elements of magical realism thrown in for good measure, resulting in a very eccentric but ultimately likeable book.
Saladina and Dolores are effectively outsiders in the village having spent so many years abroad. I would liked to have read more about their lives as Basque refugees in Eastleigh which is only touched upon briefly at the beginning but it becomes clear that this aspect of their past isn’t particularly relevant to the main story. Instead, the sisters are more focused on the present and try and live as discreetly as possible away from the gossiping community. However, when Ava Gardner arrives to shoot a movie requiring English-speaking lookalikes to act as her double, the Winterlings are keen to take part having long dreamed of becoming actresses but they are also in danger of their past catching up with them.
The way in which the horrors of the Spanish Civil War are addressed is particularly interesting – more or less constantly present but treated quite subtly in the background. Saladina visits “dental mechanic” Mr Tenderlove for new teeth after losing her own from eating bread baked with stones during the Civil War. The memories of hunger and fear are still relatively fresh in the minds of the villagers, adding to the unsettling atmosphere of mystery and sense of foreboding throughout.
‘The Winterlings’ is one of Sánchez-Andrade’s most recent novels first published in Spain in 2014 and has been shortlisted for a number of prizes. She has written several other novels, the majority of which haven’t yet been translated into English, but I hope more of her work becomes available in translation in the future.