Moving between the lives of several generations of women in Spain, Elena Medel’s beautifully observed debut novel, The Wonders, examines class and the impact of poverty on family relationships and aspirations.
The Wonders (Pushkin Press) is the debut novel by the prizewinning Spanish poet Elena Medel, translated by Lizzie Davis and Thomas Bunstead. It opens on the day of the women’s strike in Spain in 2018. María and Alicia are a grandmother and granddaughter living in Madrid who have never met, yet their lives circle and echo each other as they navigate their shared and separate histories.
Medel builds their lives using beautifully observed details about those they meet and serve and look after. Heightened moments in each woman’s life – Franco’s lying in state, a bullying prank, an encounter in a nightclub toilet – unspool to tell their stories, often circling around the woman in the middle, the daughter/mother Carmen who is largely defined as an absence. I loved the gentle way Medel guides the reader through these episodes in her characters’ lives, turning our gazes towards these moments, slowing time, and then allowing the rest of their lives to be illuminated by what we discover.
The epigraph to the novel, which is by Phillip Larkin, is an unmistakeable statement on the The Wonders’ intentions and priorities: ‘Clearly money has something to do with life.’ It’s undoubtedly unusual to read novels concerned with money, class, and low-skilled work for low pay. The prevalence of characters in literary fiction who are independently wealthy – academics or artists of some kind – inevitably reflects the kind of person who tends to write novels (or get them published), but it also frees a writer from perceived mundanity, leaving their characters to pursue romantic entanglements, travel and be wherever the writer wants them to be. To read of women who are constrained by the physical realities of the world just like us is bracing. It reminds us of how poverty tears at everything you try to build: the bonds of family, security and stability, a better world for everyone else in your life.
María’s story is one of struggling against these constraints, not to overcome them by educating or marrying herself out of the working class, but to contextualise who she was, is and will be among Spain’s dramatic changes of the past sixty years. But Alicia’s story is more complex, more inward, more difficult to understand. She proved a tricky character for me, perhaps because I couldn’t quite get to the core of her motivation.
I’ve never been much moved by the literary discourse surrounding unlikeable (female) characters so I’m reluctant to add to it with my lack of insight into Alicia. Perhaps my disconnect comes from the fact that she doesn’t change much from the beginning to the end; her consciousness is on the same plane. But why do I expect or need change in storytelling? Have I been too influenced by the narrative impulses of contemporary storytellers who are themselves influenced by the processes of psychoanalysis to expect internal resolution and external catharsis? This is unrealistic, as this is rarely how we experience our lives. Medel’s book tells the story of intergenerational trauma caused by poverty, which holds you like molasses in patterns of behaviour you’re desperately trying to forget.
So is stasis perhaps more representative of how life – particularly that marked by the trauma of poverty – really works? Am I too embedded in a Western storytelling mindset of conflict to appreciate Alicia as a character? How do we represent the human experience in fiction? Do we stylise life or do we aim for accurate mimesis? How can a writer telegraph to a reader where on this spectrum they are aiming for? Is my discomfort at Alicia’s lack of progress and awareness about me, about the writing or about my expectations of life and literature?
In Jane Alison’s book Meander, Spiral, Explode, she explores how writers can use patterns other than the Aristotelian structure to construct narratives that move ‘beyond the causal arc to create powerful forward motion in narrative: motion less inside the story than inside your mind as you construct sense.’ So she explores story shapes such as waves, meanders, spirals, explosions, networks and cells, all patterns that are found in nature like the branches of a tree, the twists of a river or the construction of a honeycomb.
In these terms, The Wonders would be shaped like two interlocked spirals, one moving out from a centre and one winding in on itself. From the beginning this movement is signposted as María thinks about all the ways a woman can strike from her work in the world and Alicia ponders hypothetical motherhood. The novel swirls until it ends at both ends of the spiral; someone realised and someone becoming, a woman in history and a woman contemplating a future, an almost-encounter that could have changed both their lives, and yet still might.
Elena Medel’s The Wonders is published by Pushkin Press and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops now.