In Other Words The Win­ter­lings by Cristina Sánchez-An­drade

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

The re­la­tion­ship be­tween sis­ters is a fer­tile sub­ject in life and in fic­tion, one that swings be­tween the dis­parate emo­tions of love and envy. The best sum­ma­tion I’ve heard of this bond was from a school di­rec­tor who said about sis­ters: “They love each other, un­til they don’t.” In her new novel The

Win­ter­lings, set in the 1950s in north­west­ern Spain, Christina Sánchez-An­drade keeps the fo­cus on two sis­ters whose lives are tan­gled in mys­te­ri­ous ways. The book re­calls the re­cently reis­sued One Out of Two, about two in­sep­a­ra­ble sis­ters who are seam­stresses, by late Mex­i­can au­thor Daniel Sada. SánchezAn­drade’s novel, which sat­is­fies on mul­ti­ple lev­els, uses a wide lens to ob­serve the dif­fi­cul­ties of re­turn­ing home only to en­counter a com­mu­nity still pick­led in the past.

After an ex­tended ab­sence due to Spain’s civil war, Dolores and Sal­ad­ina — the “Win­ter­lings” of the ti­tle — move back to their re­mote vil­lage, Tierra de Chá. Here, their grand­fa­ther Don Reinaldo was mur­dered for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons around the time the sis­ters fled. After their re­turn, Dolores and Sal­ad­ina stay aloof from the vil­lagers and pass their days car­ing for their chick­ens and a cow and tak­ing walks up a moun­tain. De­spite their self-suf­fi­ciency, they get drawn into the lives of the vil­lagers, in­clud­ing a den­tist who for­ages among the dead for his sup­ply of teeth, a school­teacher who is un­hap­pily mar­ried to a wi­dow, a glut­tonous pri­est, and a very old woman who can’t seem to die. What these vil­lagers have in com­mon is that in a dif­fer­ent era, in ex­change for ready cash, they signed a piece of pa­per that would al­low Don Reinaldo to study their brains after their death. Now the vil­lagers want those pa­pers back, but the Win­ter­lings don’t know where to find them.

As ab­surd as the story may sound, Sánchez-An­drade keeps it real. The novel is odor­ous in many ways: There is the stench of gorse in the cow­shed — the sis­ters have a soul­ful bond with their cow, Greta — along with the spray and smell of fresh urine, and the den­tist com­plains of Sal­ad­ina’s gar­licky breath. Rooms have to be swept and cob­webs taken down. A fig tree yields fruit for jam, but lately the chick­ens have been fuss­ing too much around its base. Does the tree har­bor past se­crets?

Sánchez-An­drade has a way of mak­ing sounds and si­lences com­min­gle: “Dolores stood pen­sively for a mo­ment. There was fear. Sounds that crept in from out­side, from the kitchen, from the cow­shed, a whole world of sounds: voices, noises, thuds, an­i­mals that seemed to live in­side the stone walls of the house. At night they were afraid, and they thought some­one was scratch­ing at the door. But it was also true that they weren’t do­ing so badly in Tierra de Chá. The fruit from their or­chard tasted bet­ter than any other fruit; the si­lence on the moun­tain in the com­pany of the an­i­mals was in­vig­o­rat­ing. Each of them thought the other was look­ing pret­tier . ... ”

The sis­ters have se­crets they keep from oth­ers and se­crets they keep from each other. Dur­ing a brief stay in Eng­land, they had flirted with the film in­dus­try. Dolores, the pretty one, still dreams of be­com­ing an ac­tress. Her de­sire is in­flamed by the news that Ava Gard­ner is film­ing in Spain and the di­rec­tor is look­ing for a dou­ble. Sal­ad­ina, the feisty one, is not above dream­ing ei­ther. She has lost all her teeth, but she is hav­ing new teeth fit­ted, one by one, by the afore­men­tioned den­tist, Dr. Ten­derlove.

Among the plea­sures of read­ing this book is that mag­i­cal re­al­ism is kneaded even into chores as or­di­nary as tak­ing care of a sick cow. The char­ac­ters and events can oc­ca­sion­ally seem more mys­te­ri­ous than be­liev­able, but the love be­tween the sis­ters an­chors many a fan­tas­ti­cal rav­ing. The ac­knowl­edge­ments hint at how Sánchez-An­drade kept this Gothic novel grounded in re­al­ity. She ref­er­ences an oral sto­ry­telling tra­di­tion passed down through her aunts, and she thanks her mother for help­ing her search for fam­ily mem­o­ries.

Chekhov fa­mously told writ­ers that if they hang a ri­fle on a wall in chap­ter one, the gun must go off in chap­ter two or three. That Sánchez-An­drade de­li­ciously sub­sti­tutes an oc­to­pus for a ri­fle says some­thing for her in­ge­nious novel, full of ec­cen­tric de­tails that an­i­mate a very spe­cific world. The women in the story are fiercely in­de­pen­dent. The sis­ters don’t re­quire much from the vil­lage. It is the vil­lagers who need things from them, and when their de­mands grow too in­sis­tent, the sis­ters sense that change is com­ing. The novel grows in­creas­ingly dark to­ward the end, but per­haps that is fit­ting. Those who en­ter the past risk get­ting buried in it. — Priyanka Ku­mar

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