The author of this engaging portrait of a Madrid neighborhood that finds itself in the middle of “la crisis” is long on creativity, observation and imagination. In a series of short vignettes—a couple of them long enough and complete enough to seem like short stories by themselves--, Ms. Grandes introduces us to a gallery of people we either instantly recognize, or are instantly drawn to discover more about—their thoughts, their motivations, and the frequently astounding outcomes of their choices. She accomplishes this with great story-telling and economy. Some characters have appeared in earlier novels, Raquel Fernández, for example, who played an important role in El Corazón Helado. Each new character is introduced masterfully and economically, so that we know them within a couple of pages of each chapter. But readers, beware: We must try to remember all of them, because this is a novel, not a series of short stories, and the narrative will bring them back repeatedly--in unexpected ways.
Most Americans who have lived through the most recent Great Recession, or who perhaps are still struggling through its aftermath, will see themselves or someone they know: the middle-class white collar worker suddenly losing his job and unable to find another, the family that is evicted by the bank due to delinquency on an underwater mortgage. But the way the madrileños cope will prove new and interesting. The evicted family winds up moving into a vacant building with others in a similar predicament who have organized themselves for survival and formed an association to fight eviction. If this sounds like a grim picture, yes, it is; but the characters face their difficulties in freshly inventive ways, sometimes humorously; the reader learns a great deal about the culture of this community in distress: their passions, hopes, values, sexual mores, even their profanity. And their gritty courage.
The people score an unbelievable success when the authorities try to shutter a neighborhood Health Center which provides medical care to the poor and near-poor (in “la crisis” that seems to be everyone!) for purely bureaucratic reasons. These ordinary people we have come to know so well, win by coming together and demonstrating, resisting, even risking standing up to the potential for violence from the police who have been sent to close down their clinic. It may well be only a temporary victory, however; the judge who granted an injunction may be overridden, but for the present, the elderly man with a wife who suffers from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and others like him, will have care. This section presents a dramatization of a public protest in which we know almost all the demonstrators, and because of the author’s skill, we care about what happens to them.
The story line about the evicted family has a hopeless ending, but may be the basis for a sequel from this talented writer. The parents, immigrants from Morocco, are unable to obtain legal redress, despite help from a dedicated attorney; they must continue to pay on the mortgage for a house they no longer have, for fear of deportation if they don’t. They are evicted even from the old vacant hotel where they were squatters along with other homeless people. Their eldest son, Ahmed, finally finds an on-line site at a cyber café that recruits young men and decides to go fight in Syria rather than to continue to live in “besos en el pan” poverty in Spain.