In Spanish writer Victor del Árbol's world, little to nothing happens that doesn't carry consequences and in most cases results in a heavy load to bear. Much as he did in A Million Drops which ranged in time from the Spanish Civil War to modern day, del Árbol in his latest book weaves his connections across decades, continents and even what seem at least initially to be the most casual of encounters.
Lying, cheating, base betrayals, greed and heart-breaking evil — in Above the Rain, his book due out in an English language version in May 2021, del Árbol once again peoples his novel with flawed characters some of whom hope to be better, others fixed in their determination to get what they can for themselves. Victims and predators alike, they all have all done things they regret — some terribly, horrendously so — but might well do again.
At the same time, a quality of grace, hope and forgiveness fills his books, propelling readers forward amid intricate plotting with any number of possible outcomes. Del Árbol is equal parts painfully realistic and playfully mystical in writing about the way humans have a way of helping and destroying each other. (Note should be made of the translation by Lisa Dillman, who teaches at Emory University, which never sounds wrong.)
The book begins in 1955 with a prologue, a woman in Tangiers swinging back and forth between agitation and lethargy, who has been abandoned by her husband. She's being urged by her family back in London to return there but she resists. She decides on another course of action and hurries her young daughter along as they leave the house. The daughter doesn't want to go — her mother is making her increasingly uneasy — and she only wants her father to return so their life can be as it was before.
From there the book fast forwards in time almost 60 years where we pick up the story with Miguel and Helena — no they don't know each other yet but they will — who each decide that they are going to make one last try to do something different with their lives. Miguel, a man ruled by structure and remorse, is slowly losing his mind to Alzheimer's as he comes to discover.
I laughed out loud in recognition at the early scene of Miguel sitting in the doctor's office with his adult daughter when he's given the devastating news that he has irreversible senile dementia — a situation that has to strike a chord with any reader who has wanted to throttle a pompous and thoughtless physician.
Then the doctor stood, which was his way of saying that the time he'd allocated to them was over. His face took on well-rehearsed solemnity.
"Try not to be overwhelmed."
"Miguel frowned. It struck him as an idiotic remark."
As for Helena, she is living in a nursing home in the small town of Tarifa on the southern end of the Iberian Peninsula. She waits out her days there, besieged by past memories and drinks too much. She and Miguel will meet there when he has to move from his own place and cannot stay with his daughter and her abusive boyfriend.
The two become friends and after the suicide of a fellow resident, decide to go out on the road together to face up to people from each of their pasts. A final act as it were.
And then, del Árbol leapfrogs his readers all the way to Malmo in Sweden where Yasminia lives and works for a man entrenched in criminal activity. Moroccan immigrants, their household is ruled by her evil, petty and bitter grandfather, while her mother clearly is ashamed of her. But stay with him — as he does in his other books it all becomes clear in time.
As it turns out, violence is the tie that links Miguel and Helena's world to Yasminia's, as is played out in devastating fashion.
Del Árbol was an officer of the Catalan police force from 1992 to 2012. He has won a number of writing awards and his book A Million Drops was named a Notable Book of the Year by the Washington Post. His writing takes an investment of time and thought but is more than rewarding in his sweeping language filled with poetic and people so finely drawn that they seem real.
As William Faulkner famously said "The past is never dead. It's not even past." He might have found a kindred spirit in Victor del Árbol.
Above the Rain. By Victor del Árbol. Translated by Lisa Dillman. Other Press Paperback Original. May 25, 2021. $18.99.
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