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The Wonders: a finely observed novel about working-class Spanish heroines

Book review: The money woes of one Spanish family over decades

The Wonders
The Wonders
Author: Elena Medel, translated by Lizzie Davis and Thomas Bunstead
ISBN-13: 978-1782276586
Publisher: Pushkin
Guideline Price: £14.99

A grandmother and granddaughter who’ve never met are the enigmatic dual narrators of Elena Medel’s debut novel, an ambitious and enlightening book from an acclaimed Spanish poet. With a timeline spanning decades, from the last years of Franco’s dictatorship to the 2018 Spanish women’s strike, The Wonders seeks to highlight the plight of Spain’s working-class women. There is a sense of history unfolding through the story of one fragmented family whose rifts turn out to be both commonplace and hugely consequential.

The generational aspect gives depth to the book’s preoccupations. Certain traits are passed down from grandmother María to granddaughter Alicia: a fear of intimacy, an unwillingness to care for others, a desperate desire for autonomy, a constant lack of money. Medel’s skill is to excavate the tough lives of these women, showing the heartache behind the hardness, the reasons for the armour. Or, as Alicia puts it, “What if genes determine your character, not just your eye colour or the shape of your mouth?”

The plot follows both women on their daily grind in Madrid, interspersing these vignettes with stream-of-consciousness sections that relay seminal moments in their respective pasts. María is almost in her 70s, a cleaner who fears she will soon be replaced by someone younger. After dropping out of college, Alicia sells travel kits to commuters for minimum wage. Both women are in unfulfilling long-term relationships with men who aren’t allowed access to their inner turmoils. And both seek escape, María in her feminist activism, Alicia in random sex with strangers when her husband is out of town.

Medel has plenty to say about the dramatic social changes for women in the latter parts of the 20th century and on into contemporary times. The reason for María’s solitary life in Madrid is that she was banished from her hometown of Córdoba decades earlier for getting pregnant by a married man. Medel deftly paints a tragic picture of a young girl who didn’t know how to say no to a strange man who repeatedly harassed her in public.


María’s predicament recalls US writer Mary Gaitskill’s essay on date rape, recently republished in her collection Oppositions, where the author links her inability to defend herself from unwanted sexual advances to the social mores of the day: “I was unable to effectively stand up for myself because I had never been taught how. When I was growing up in the 60s, I was taught by the adult world that good girls did not have sex outside marriage and bad girls did.”

The prose style is lyrical without being ornate. She favours long paragraphs that deliberately circle back on events, giving a hypnotic effect

Medel contrasts María’s story with Alicia’s pursuit of one-night stands and the fleeting happiness they seem to offer. Other novels that have explored this ground include Leila Slimani’s Adele, Ella Baxter’s New Animal and, most pertinently, Brenda Navarro’s Empty Houses, whose narrator shares many of Alicia’s views on poverty, sex, reproduction and family, all of which are discussed in a similarly world-weary, hard-boiled tone.

From Córdoba, Medel is the author of three poetry collections, two works of non-fiction and a children’s book. She is the recipient of the XXVI Loewe Prize and the Francisco Umbral prize. The prose style of her debut novel is lyrical, without being ornate. She favours long paragraphs that deliberately circle back on events, giving a hypnotic effect to the stalled, stunted lives of her characters.

This works particularly well as a counterpoint to Alicia’s defiant proclamations: “I’m not interested in being sentimental. I miss my father, but I also miss something I never experienced, something I was entitled to: not having to go to work, opening a full fridge, holidays the people I now spend my time around could never afford.”

Less successful are her attempts to broaden the story. Perspectives from Alicia’s schoolfriends, for example, or the men in María’s activism group, or a woman she meets in the toilets of a bar, don’t quite earn their place in the narrative. Smaller details are sometimes withheld for suspense in a way that irks, because the real mystery of the book is far more interesting: how do women without money or family get by in the world?

The epigraph from Philip Larkin – "Clearly money has something to do with life" – is an accurate one-line summary of The Wonders. The ending, not to be divulged here, feels particularly inspired, highlighting as it does how different circumstances could have produced different results, how our lives are determined by chance, the luck or misfortune of what we're born into:

“Money’s the thing: not having enough is the thing. Every one of the situations that brought María here – ‘here’ being the one-bedroom apartment in Carabanchel, the metro ride to Nuevos Ministerios – would have unfolded differently if there’d been money.”

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts