AUTHOR: María Tena
PUBLISHER: Tusquets Editores
GENRE: Women’s fiction
READER’S NAME: Andrea Shah
A woman’s search for answers about what happened to her mother is the driving force in María Tena’s novel Nada que no sepas as it moves back and forth in time between the present day and Montevideo in the decadent 1960s.
Our narrator, a middle-aged Spanish woman living in Madrid, has always been unsettled by the events that led to her family’s departure from Uruguay. They arrived in South America from Spain thanks to a job opportunity, and quickly made a home for themselves. But five years after their arrival, father, son and daughter return home to Spain abruptly after the mother’s unexpected — and unexplained — death. Years later, our narrator still doesn’t have any answers about how her mother died and why her father never spoke about it, and neither her father nor her brother is alive for her to ask.
Two incidents — a dinner with family friends from Uruguay and a betrayal of trust in her marriage — push our narrator to return to Montevideo for the first time in decades in search of the truth about her mother. Her two closest Uruguayan friends put her in touch with a variety of acquaintances from the past, each of whom recounts their experiences of the time period and their memories of the narrator’s parents, an exotic young Spanish couple. At the same time, the narrator explores her own memories of her preteen years living in the posh Carrasco neighborhood of Montevideo.
It becomes clear that all was not well in the narrator’s parents’ marriage, with her father’s fidelity issues exacerbated by the climate of sexual freedom among well-to-do Uruguayans in the era. This contrasts sharply with the repressive, deeply Catholic environment of Francoist Spain that the narrator’s mother was raised in, and which the family left behind when they came to Uruguay.
The narrator retraces her own memories of the time, recalling the quarrels she witnessed between her parents and placing them in a more adult context, alongside the issues present in her own marriage.
The contrast between the two marriages is one of the book’s weaker points. Through flashbacks and oral recollections, we get a rich, evocative portrait of upper-class life in 1960s Uruguay and how its social freedoms impacted the narrator’s parents, who are both depicted as complex, appealing individuals. But significantly less time was spent on the narrator’s own marriage, and as a result, the reader has a more difficult time contextualizing her choices. Likewise, the narrator’s children and husband are not fully fleshed out in the present day.
The book builds to a conclusion in which the narrator learns what happened to her mother and why, but it ultimately felt rushed and somewhat back-loaded, in particular because of the late introduction of a love interest from her past who doesn’t appear often in her prior recollections.
The author’s prose is elegant but straightforward and should not prove difficult to translate. Her skill at setting a scene is exceptional, and readers will walk away with a clear idea of the differences between Uruguayan and Spanish society in the 1960s, and how both cultures felt about marriage and fidelity.
This novel will require careful positioning in the English-language market. It includes elements of historical fiction, family sagas, and even thrillers, without falling neatly into any one of those categories. “Women’s fiction” may be the best way to describe it, as it’s a female-driven story which focuses on women’s relationships and experiences, interweaving historical and familial elements. This combination of elements is often popular in bestselling works of women’s fiction in the U.S.