In Other Words The Winterlings by Cristina Sánchez-Andrade
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