I was so thrilled to be offered a free copy of this to review. All views and opinions are my own.
The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys
Let me preface this review with a warning – this was one of those books I utterly loved, so apologies in advance for fangirling, waxing lyrical and/or going off on personal tangents. I will try to rein it in.
But if it really is a case of TLDR, ultimately my message here is this – you must read this book. Historical, heartbreaking and hopeful it is a story of love, loss and loyalty; of secrets, of strength and of silence.
For those of you prepared to wade in with me, I hope I can do some justice to this fantastic book…
I read Ruta Sepetys’ Salt to the Sea in 2017, when it won the Carnegie medal, and it blew me away. So when I was offered the chance to read her most recent book (also on the Carnegie longlist this year) and take part in this blog tour for it, I absolutely jumped at the chance.
Fountains of Silence is set in Madrid,1957. The Spanish Civil War is over, but Franco’s dictatorship most certainly is not.
After twenty years almost entirely cut off from other nations, Spain is just beginning to reopen its doors to outsiders, notably Americans with money. The Hilton Castellana opens, formerly a palace and now the place to be for travelling businessmen, politicians, musicians and stars.
But just beyond the parties, cocktails, glamour and wealth lies a Spain devastated by the fascist regime.
Poverty reigns. Women are powerless – no passports, no property, no bank accounts, no say. Republican ‘reds’, or more likely their left-behind children, live in silence, desperation and fear.
And from these two worlds come our main characters, Daniel – son of a wealthy Texan oil tycoon, and Ana – a maid at the Hilton whose family feel the effects of the civil war and Franco’s regime daily.
However, rather than focusing solely on their narratives, Ruta skilfully uses multiple perspectives to bring together the stories of those around Ana and Daniel too, thereby delivering a much broader, deeper and more complex view of the experiences and difficulties faced by the many different people caught up in Franco’s regime.
I loved the characters in this (even poor misunderstood Nick, who I really didn’t like much at first but really warmed to and who became one of my favourites by the end!) I rooted for them so deeply.
Their stories are so cleverly and effectively woven together, and I loved how it was predominantly through their interactions and encounters that we really saw the stark contrast between life for Daniel and for Ana and her family.
Daniel’s misjudged trip to Ana’s home in Vallecas, for example is one of my standout moments in the book. It has stuck with me so intensely since reading and I continue to think about it for so many reasons; because of Daniel’s doing the unthinkable and turning up there with his gifts of expensive wine and chocolates, but primarily for the portrait it painted of Vallecas itself and the people who lived there.
It felt so real; I felt like I was there, seeing it firsthand. Indeed, this is true of the book as a whole, and one of my favourite things about it was the use of Daniel’s photography to tell the story. I’ve always loved photography as an art form and I’m a sucker for a photo exhibition, so this worked so well for me.
(On a personal level, it also took me back to my days in Madrid, when, almost crippled with social anxiety and rarely leaving my flat if it meant going alone, I would spend nearly an entire day psyching myself up to go out to an exhibition. It was always photography that would get me there.)
Some of the shots he takes are so powerful – the nun, the Crows, his father… – and I couldn’t help but be reminded of Robert Capa, who is indeed referenced in the book. The images felt so vividly painted, and when Ana adds captions to them this only adds to their impact (and even more so the way in which she does this and the events that follow). I could see them, taped up on that hotel wall as clearly as if I’d walked round them in exhibition.
The setting and Ruta’s ability to take us there, is second to none. I was absolutely transported.
I was lucky enough to listen to Ruta talk about her writing, and she talks of trying to visit the places she’s writing about, to get a feel for them, and this really comes across.
I lived in Madrid for three years and, despite being set many decades earlier, this really took me back there – the shutters going down for siesta, the streets and the places and their feel, the food, the lives, the culture… Immersive, evocative and, for me personally, very nostalgic too.
As well as the places themselves, Ruta also talked about the many artefacts she used to help recreate that time and place, and the sheer joy she conveyed as she talked about the items and artefacts she’d found in her research for this was nothing short of infectious.
“… because I have the items…I can touch them and feel them, hopefully I can describe them in a way to readers that is more of a sensory experience…you want to immerse the reader…”
And immersive it is. It’s not always an easy read, as it confronts the suffering of the Spanish people then – the barbaric homes for orphaned republican children, the oppression, the empty coffins and stolen babies, the sheer imbalance of power, the censorship, the fear and the secrets – but it does feel incredibly authentic.
And the complex and believable characters and the way we see Spain through their eyes had a lot to do with that. From loyal and obedient Puri as she begins to question what she’s bought into for so long, to hardened Fuga furious at the secret he uncovers and the suffering around him, to Ana’s feelings of fear and being caged, limited, trapped.
When I heard Ruta speak, she talked of the people she’d met during her research, both incidentally and as part of her interviews, and I think this comes across so strongly in the book.
In the main characters, yes, but equally in the absolutely stellar supporting cast and in those we pass just briefly – the girl with no shoes or the old lady in Vallecas, Lorenza, the crowd at the amateur bull fight (and indeed in Fuga himself), Paco Lobo and Buttons (two of my favourite characters, despite being ‘bit parts’ – I loved hearing on the zoom call where Buttons had come from, and I would love to see Paco Lobo heading up a book of his own!)
It’s safe to say this isn’t an easy book at times, there is great hardship, great sadness and great suffering here. But there is also great community, great hope and great resilience.
Full of grit and courage, this is a powerful and moving story, helping to bring to light some of the very real stories which for so long were shrouded in silence. I can’t recommend it enough.
Don’t forget to check out the other stops on the blog tour too!