Night is coming down and there is a hum of noise from the street.
–Colm Tóibín - The South - c.1990,1992
In 1950, Katherine Proctor leaves Ireland and her family for Barcelona, determined to become a painter. There she meets Miguel, an anarchist veteran of the Spanish Civil War, and proceeds to build a life with him. But Katherine cannot escape her past, as Michael Graves, a fellow Irish emigre to Spain, forces her to re-examine all her relationships: to her lover, her art and the homeland she only thought she knew.
I first read this book in 2004, although when it was selected for my book club I couldn’t remember any of it. I had vague recollections that I had read it, but had the plot and characters confused with Songdogs by Colum McCann1. Once I started reading it, again, I remembered aspects of it, but very little in terms of the details.
It is a very interesting book, and I think it is a book that the reader will bring a lot into, I have a feeling that every reader might see something different in the story and the characters. Katherine is the main point of view character, on occasion we get her first person perspective, but for the most part it is third person story-telling. At the beginning of the book she has just left her husband and child back home in Ireland and escaped to Spain. And I get the feeling that some people at the book club may judge her very harshly for that. Much more harshly than they would judge a man for the same act…
I don’t think it is a book that I could say I loved. Interesting and thought provoking would be the terms I would use instead. And I don’t mean interesting as code for bad. It is a story all about how life is affected by the events of the past. How history isn’t gone, it lives on in in memory and changes people’s behaviour for years to come. It isn’t in the past, it is still happening.
Below is my review from 2004
Colm Tóibín has recently been in the news for his new book, The Master which tells the story of Henry James, and is supposedly very good. I haven’t read it, so I don’t know :) But the publicity did encourage me to pick this book up when I spotted it in the library
His first novel, it tells the story of Katherine Procter who leaves her life in Ireland for Spain, leaving behind her husband and son as well as Enniscorthy. In Spain she finds romance, and a new life as an artist, but is constantly haunted by the past. Both her own history and that of Miguel’s experiences during the Spanish Civil War. The book starts off in 1950, a fact I really should have paid a little bit more attention to, otherwise I wouldn’t have been so surprised by certain things. But once I checked the date I was sorted.
It is a wonderful read, a great exploration of memory and the impact of the past. Nothing is really resolved, or changed. There is no happy ever after, but it isn’t a depressing book. The language is great, especially many of the descriptions of the light. There are no real explanations offered, it is up to the reader to discover the links between the characters
it is also about memories and Ireland and Spain, so I suppose there is somewhat of a commonality there ↩