In a Suspenseful New Novel From Ruta Sepetys, Franco-Era Spain Is as Repressive as Gilead

Spain under Francisco Franco is as dystopian a setting as Margaret Atwood’s Gilead in Ruta Sepetys’s suspenseful, romantic and timely new work of historical fiction, THE FOUNTAINS OF SILENCE (Philomel, 512 pp., $18.99; ages 12 and up). It’s 1957, but Franco’s isolationist policies and a powerful Catholic Church ensure that Spanish women are treated like chattel, Spanish babies lack basic medical care and Republican sympathizers end their days laboring like slaves. Even in Madrid, ordinary Spaniards live in fear and poverty.

That’s certainly true of Ana, the novel’s young heroine. By day, she is a chambermaid at the Castellana Hilton, a grand hotel catering to American tourists. There she meets Daniel, an appealingly down-to-earth boy spending a month in Spain after high school. With him are his Spanish-born mother and his father, a Texas oilman eager to capitalize on Franco’s new openness to foreign investment.

Daniel has brought his most treasured possession: a camera. Inspired by Robert Capa, he begins taking photographs that capture a reality the government would prefer to conceal. His snapshot of a nun carrying a dead baby in her arms becomes the first clue in a dark subplot about the stolen children of “degenerate” Republicans.

At night, while Daniel and his family sleep in the palatial Hilton, Ana returns to the tiny, dilapidated apartment she shares with her siblings. Twenty years after the civil war, these orphans still have secrets. “Estamos más guapas con la boca cerrada,” they tell each other: “We are prettier with our mouths shut.” But Ana’s independent spirit and her friendship with Daniel soon tempt her to take risks that threaten her family’s tenuous security.

Sepetys keeps her novel grounded in historical fact by including snippets of oral testimony from American officials describing the morally compromised but mutually beneficial relationship the United States established with Spain. For readers wondering, “Did this all really happen?,” these documentary sources provide corroboration. There are excerpts, too, from actual magazines and textbooks that promoted the fascists’ virulent misogyny. Women’s ultimate purpose is “to be used as a mother”; pleasure leads to ruin: “The sensual woman should not expect serious work, serious respect, clean feelings or welcoming tenderness.”

It’s clear that Ana is that odious thing, a “sensual woman.” She attracts unwanted male attention and pays for rejecting it. She actively pursues her own desires, yet still suffers: “I dream constantly of leaving Spain, of being wanted, yet the hands that have reached for me have never loved me. My sole intimacy is with silence and the taste of tears.” How can she escape this life of beautifully articulated deprivation?

Sepetys wisely resists making Ana’s story into a fairy tale, though she does allow her some moments of magic. One night, Ana sloughs off her uniform and wears borrowed finery to an embassy party. She is so transformed that Daniel’s mother doesn’t recognize her. Afterward, Ana reflects that “she wore a dress, a beautiful dress, a dress she could never own. She spoke to a handsome boy in a courtyard and was respected by his mother. For a few hours, she felt beautiful.” But Cinderella stories are too simple for Ana’s complicated reality, and that’s a good thing for the novel.

Though Ana and her family endure traumatic, tragic events, “The Fountains of Silence” offers a lighter reading experience than the gut-punch Sepetys delivered in her award-winning previous novel, “Salt to the Sea,” which sometimes felt too painful to read. “The Fountains of Silence” is a sunnier venture. Eventually, tyrants die; love prevails; and sisters separated at birth find each other again. These reunions seem like the redemptive endings of Shakespeare’s family romances. Like them, “The Fountains of Silence” speaks truth to power, persuading future rulers to avoid repeating the crimes of the past.

Sarah Harrison Smith, a former editor at The Times, teaches in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.

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