One of the themes of this novel, the thing that all others spring from, is the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). It’s a fascinating topic, it represents the very best and the very worst of humanity and is a pivotal moment in world history. The clash of political ideologies and religion versus secularism are a matter of ongoing academic debate but it was a messy, terrible time, millions of people suffered and fiction is one way of telling this story. Blood Song is foremost a chilling crime story but it does help to bring the human cost of the Spanish Civil War into the light. There are many thousands of unheard stories from this time, stories that need to be heard.
Blood Song, quite apart from its inherent criticism of fascist brutality, could never have been written in Franco’s Spain, the regime wouldn’t have allowed it to be published. The state backed by the church thought that crime writing was immoral and distasteful and banned it. Read this novel and ask yourself where the immorality lies, in this dark but compassionate novel or with the regime that perpetrated the terrible crimes that are glimpsed here. Hypocrisy was only one of the many depravities of the Franco regime.
Gustawsson is a compelling writer of dark crime fiction, this is the third Roy and Castells novel and the writing gets stronger each time. Her themes verge on the disturbing and so are not for the feint of heart but they are disturbing because they are drawn from life. They are for realists and readers who know that the world can be depraved and unforgiving and that ordinary people fall victim to cruelty and barbarity all the time. We can only learn the lessons of history if we face up to the past not by pretending it didn’t happen. That’s why I have no truck with anyone who says that Gustawsson is in any way exploitative or gratuitous. On the contrary, she is a very considered writer, when it comes to murder Blood Song doesn’t linger, the whole point of the story is to appreciate the real consequences of violence not revel in it. When it comes to crimes against humanity those committed by the fascists in Spain are as depraved and brutal as that of the Nazis or the Soviet gulags. The subject matter is uncomfortable but necessary. This is not history but Blood Song does show how crime fiction can be a powerful social critique. The author is never to blame for the excesses of human cruelty in the novel provided they behave responsibly in revealing them to us, as Gustawsson has. Blood Song is, in it’s way, a voice for the many thousands of victims of Francoist rule, the women who had children ripped from their arms never to see them again. Margaret Atwood said that everything in The Handmaid’s Tale came from real life, her story of the stolen babies is a reimaging of what happened in Spain under Franco. I don’t think we do ourselves any favours pretending these things didn’t happen. I want to read fiction brave enough to confront this reality. I want to hear Blood Song’s story, it isn’t easy, it isn’t good but it has a ring of truth. The thriller is a perfect vehicle for such a serious topic.
Falkenberg, Sweden, 10pm, Friday, 2nd December, 2016:
[Kersten] “So she had taken Göran by the hand, thrown open the gates of hell and released her inner demons.”
Harrow, England, 1am, Saturday 3rd December, 2016. Jennifer Marsden didn’t come home from school last night, her father reported it at 8pm. DCS Jack Pearce turned to profiler Emily Roy. After tackling the family Emily and new Met recruit Aliénor Lindbergh interview the neighbours. Martine Partridge is hiding something.
El Palomar, Spain, 10pm, 21st December, 1937. Sole is heavily pregnant, Teresa tells her to rest her feet a minute. Paco thanks Sole for the meal, it made for a perfect birthday. Then three blue shirts start banging on the door. They barge in, one of them asks for Soledad Melilla Santiago, Teresa pretends that is her but they laugh and abuse her, they know the ‘traitors’ they are looking for. They arrest all three anyway.
Hampstead, 2016, Emily tells Aliénor that she will go with her to Sweden when they find out her family has been murdered.
In Falkenberg, writer Alexis Castells is preparing to become Madame Stellan Eklund, the wedding is only two weeks away. Her mother has flown in from France and seems determined to find fault with her hosts:
‘It’s the Scandinavian culture, Alexis. It’s . . . such a world away from our own. It’s . . . full of little quirks. It’s . . . They’re unemotional, indifferent, stuck up, almost, while we Mediterraneans, we’re spontaneous and expressive, if not a bit over the top.’
(Such shows that Gustawsson, a French woman married to a Swedish man, can offers us a lighter moment.)
El Palomar, 1937. The three prisoners are told to get out of the van. Teresa hears Paco shout, ‘No Pasarán!’ followed by a shot and then two more shots. Paco and Sole are dead, two bullets for Sole (one for her baby). The fascists then turn on Teresa. . . Teresa is held for three days with other women and children in a cinema in Alicante before being loaded like cattle onto a train, after three days they stop and the women are instructed to throw out the dead. Eventually they arrive at Los Ventas women’s prison in Madrid. Teresa is pregnant, her daughter is taken from her. After years in prison she is sent to the Gordi orphange, the children are treated appallingly by the nuns, they are considered bad seeds.
Falkenberg, 2016. Aliénor’s has Asperger’s, her mother, father and sister have been brutally stabbed to death, Kersten and Göran had their tongues cut out. There are a number of lines for the police to consider, the couple ran an IVF clinic, Göran was having an affair with a neighbour but Emily Roy knows that she needs Alexis Castells if hey are to get to the bottom of the deaths.
There are elements of this story that must have been evocative for Johanna Gustawsson, she and her husband were dealing with fertility issues as the book was being written, and that does inform part of the plot. If you want to know more about that listen to Johanna and Mattias Gustawsson talking on Women’s Hour on the iPlayer (4/10/19).
Gustawsson is very good on the way the past can come back to wreak havoc in the present. Her characters Roy and Castells are easy to get along with and the novel is emotional and atmospheric. Wonderfully translated to maintain the tension by David Warriner.
The next Roy and Castells will be set in Canada and the Belle Époque. A TV series is in the planning.
Paul Burke 4/4
Blood Song by Johanna Gustawsson
Orenda Books 9781912374816 pbk Sep 2019