The Wonders by Elena Medel (transl. Lizzie Davis and Thomas Bunstead): Precious independence

Cover image for The Wonders by Elena Medel Spanish poet Elena Medel’s first novel, The Wonders, was much acclaimed in her homeland, winning the prestigious Francisco Umbral Prize. Unsurprisingly, not being a poetry reader, I’d not heard of her but I’m always keen to read novels by poets and this one’s themes of feminism and class made it very appealing so I put up my hand. Opening on the day of the Spanish Women’s March in 2018, Medel’s novel tells the stories of a working-class woman and the granddaughter she’s never met, both living in Madrid.

No one will ever know about the war they wage in their living rooms: imagine the day – María says on Saturday afternoon, more than just cream in her coffee, all of their husbands late coming home – when they realise we think for ourselves 

María became pregnant as a teenager, leaving her baby with her family in Córdoba to work in Madrid. Her younger brother takes on responsibility for Carmen who barely knows her mother. María works in a variety of jobs, from carer to cleaner, meeting Pedro who becomes her ‘life-mate’ but never her husband. Their evenings are often spent with his friends and their wives discussing politics, or at least the men put forward their views while the women confine themselves to domestic matters. María begins to educate herself, Pedro becoming her mouthpiece for the ideas they discuss based on her reading. Pedro longs for a closer relationship, for María to live with him, but her independence has been hard won and she’s not prepared to lose it. Unbeknownst to María, her granddaughter, Alicia, has also moved to Madrid after growing up in very different circumstances to the grandmother she’s never met, used to money and privilege until tragedy hits. Now in her thirties working in a kiosk on Atocha station, she’s reluctantly married although chronically unfaithful and determinedly childless.

It’s not about money, María thinks to herself; it’s about power

Themes of money, class and feminism are woven tightly through María and Alicia’s alternating narratives, underpinning their experiences. Medel tells their stories in a series of striking episodes over a period which saw huge social change in Spain after the death of Franco and the advent of democracy but not for everyone. María and Alicia are entirely different yet their preoccupations and problems echo each other despite the years that separate them. Medel makes very clear the link between money and independence both in terms of class but more emphatically in terms of gender. Given that The Wonders is a novella, it’s quite a dense piece of fiction – it took me much longer to read it than I’d expected – but Medel enlivens the women’s stories with vivid snapshots from their lives. I found it both absorbing and thought provoking.

Pushkin Press: London 9781782276586 224 pages Hardback

12 thoughts on “The Wonders by Elena Medel (transl. Lizzie Davis and Thomas Bunstead): Precious independence”

  1. This sounds excellent, tackling big themes in such a short space is impressive. Like you I’m very fond of poets novels – they can be so precise and such wonderful use of language, exactly the style I like best!

  2. This sounds fascinating – one to keep in mind for Spanish Literature Month later in the year. I do love when poets write novels and I’m a sucker for an alternating narrative

    1. That structure works so well in novels exploring themes across time, doesn’t it? You’ve made me realise how few Spanish novels I’ve read. No idea why that should be.

  3. Sounds really interesting – reminds me a little of “Forty Lost Years” by Rosa Maria Arquimbau which I read last year and which covered women’s lives during the middle of the 20th century in Spain.

      1. I can’t remember the last time I read a novel set in Spain – a good reason to add this to my list. I also love novels written by poets!

  4. Novels by poets usually work very well for me; I think of writers like Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Michael Crummey, and Anne Simpson and Aislinn Hunter (the latter two likely only recognisable to Canadian readers).

    1. I can see why you were drawn to this one, those themes would appeal to me too. I would be especially interested in the women, their lives and politics.

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