The Threads of the Heart is an epic tale exposing the magical gifts and peculiar sufferings of a family of impoverished Spanish women. Already a publishing sensation in France and Italy, this beautiful descendant of the 20th century masterworks of magic realism deserves further attention from English readers.
Set in 19th-century Spain, Threads charts the dramatic fate of Frasquita Carasco and her five children as they struggle under the thumb of a host of madmen, and eventually find themselves walking to Africa. Ostracized in her hometown of Santavela because of the magic gifted by her mother in an ancient wooden box, Frasquita is married off to an insane wheelmaker who gambles her away in a cockfight. And so she flees this hamlet in the closed-off world of southern Spain, taking her young children with her — each of whom is endowed with an extraordinary quality that will determine the course of his or her adult life (the gift of light, the gift of death, the gift of words, etc.).
On their way they encounter revolutionaries battling the aristocracy, ghosts grinding chalk at a ragged windmill, and a host of friends and enemies who fail to halt the implacable march of Frasquita and her brood. As the journey unfolds in the scorching heat of Andalusia and Algeria, the children slowly come of age and inherit the magic contained in the wooden box. They each go on to grapple with this inheritance, one that brings opportunity and danger in equal measure. Eventually, as they marry and make their way in the world, the children must decide whether the magic passed through the Carasco women is a treasure to preserve or a burden to shake off.
The beauty of this book is in its lyricism. The sentences consistently stir emotion and conjure vivid, fantastical worlds. Carole Martinez’s imagined universe is ornate, sensitive, and well worth spending time in.
The scenery she depicts is enchanting and replete with childlike wonders rarely found in serious literature. The characters, too, are well-drawn and mysterious. Each woman in the Carasco family is incredible in her own way. Each is also flawed in a unique manner, and suffers accordingly.
The painful subordination of Spanish women to their men — a recurring motif — is acutely rendered in a series of tragic episodes as surprising as they are uncanny. So when Frasquita gets on the road without a penny or a destination, you understand why, and you hope she makes it wherever she’s going. Her footsteps are potent symbols of her wish for freedom at all costs.
Centred on this unending march, the book is something of a road-trip novel, and at times has the meandering pace of a journey whose destination is unknown. When Frasquita and her children get involved in an anarchist uprising, for example, it isn’t clear what role this episode will have in helping or hindering them find liberty at the end of their walk. That being said, such detours are rich and pleasant in themselves, and the novel as a whole has a compelling narrative with a tender and elegant ending.
The translation is satisfying, save the occasional typo, and it’s easy to forget you’re reading work originally penned in French. On the other hand, there’s something quintessentially français in Martinez’s disposition, and the book provides a pleasant window on an emotional framework that differs subtly from our own. In this regard, The Threads of the Heart is a horizon-broadening testament to why reading translations is worthwhile.
From a debut author more used to teaching middle school than writing epics, this is an extraordinary effort, and her next novel is eagerly awaited in Europe. So far Martinez has picked up nine prizes there for The Threads of the Heart. You might think of picking it up yourself.
Thanks to Europa Editions for providing a review copy of this work.