book review | The Fountains of Silence

Hello, friends! This review contains mild, vague spoilers.

I loved Ruta Sepetys’ Out of the EasyWith its impeccable research and compelling depiction of New Orleans’ historic underbelly, the novel quickly joined the ranks of my all-time favorite books.

I read Easy recently, and Sepetys’ work was on my mind. So, as the weather in my state grows hot and humid, I thought it natural to revisit The Fountains of SilenceTaking place in the summer of 1957, Sepetys’ latter novel explores life in the period following the Spanish Civil War, when Madrid was under the control of fascist leader Francisco Franco. I found the story, and its deceiving golden tones, fascinating.

Madrid, 1957. Under the fascist dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, Spain is hiding a dark secret. Meanwhile, tourists and foreign businessmen flood into Spain under the welcoming promise of sunshine and wine. Among them is eighteen-year-old Daniel Matheson, the son of an oil tycoon, who arrives in Madrid with his parents hoping to connect with the country of his mother’s birth through the lens of his camera. Photography–and fate–introduce him to Ana, whose family’s interweaving obstacles reveal the lingering grasp of the Spanish Civil War–as well as chilling definitions of fortune and fear. Daniel’s photographs leave him with uncomfortable questions amidst shadows of danger. He is backed into a corner of difficult decisions to protect those he loves. Lives and hearts collide, revealing an incredibly dark side to the sunny Spanish city (Goodreads).

Sepetys’ main characters may be Dan and Ana, but she crafts her tale using multiple perspectives. Readers learn of the importance of persistence from Rafa, Ana’s earnest and optimistic brother. Puri, their young cousin, gives us a peek into the psyche of a woman questioning the society she has always obeyed. Julia, Ana’s older sister, struggles to provide for their family and survive amid suspicion. We even get brief interludes from a young bellhop and a matador-in-training. Quotes from US officials and ambassadors separate the chapters, providing real-life context for readers unfamiliar with Franco’s regime. 

The cast of characters is large, and it requires readers to process a lot of information. Luckily, Sepetys has experience in creating memorable supporting characters (Out Of the Easy’s French Quarter misfits were my favorite part of that story!) In this novel, highlights included: Carlitos, a preteen hotel employee whose love of Texas renders him Dan’s confidant, Ben, a grizzled (albeit trope-y) reporter/romantic sage, and Miguel, a kind photography store owner. With so many characters, though, a few inevitably fell flat: I struggled to understand the book’s stance on the elder Mr. Matheson, for example. But overall, a cast of vibrant personalities inhabits The Fountains of Silence and its vision of midcentury Madrid.

While the collection of fleeting perspectives can be unsettling, Sepetys’ structure is no mere gimmick. Rather, it complements the novel’s setting: the glimpses into characters’ lives reflect the voyeuristic nature of Franco’s Spain. The set-up worked especially well during the novel’s confession sequence, in which four young people successively talk to a priest. Those few pages manage to confront moral ideology, desire, and religion’s role in corrupt power structures.

I enjoyed The Fountains of Silence immensely, but it is not an easy read. Sure, the love story is charming and warm and moving. But like the novel’s tropical, wine-washed setting, dark tones lurk underneath the breezy surface. At no point does Sepetys shy away from the complexities of life under a dictatorship: The Fountains of Silence contains chilling descriptions of death, hardship, and heartbreak, and it has a slow, immersive plot.

Readers (both young and old! Sepetys’ writing targets a YA crowd but dances the line between teenage and adult literature) should take time to sit with the novel’s messages. I latched onto the opening line, which Rafa first utters while working at a butcher shop in Vallecas. His words haunt the book. 

“They stand in line for blood.”  

notes

  • I bought this book last year from my favorite local bookstore. If possible, support local booksellers and libraries during this time. Consider buying your next purchase from Moon Palace Books in Minneapolis.  
  • Sepetys’ earlier novel, Salt to the Sea, also has multiple perspectives. I am so eager to check out the rest of her work!  
  • Fountains of Silence, in structure and theme, reminded me of the BBC’s World on Fire. On a literary front, Sepetys’s novels recall Julie Berry’s books. (Berry is one of my absolute favorite authors, and I will forever maintain that The Passion of Dolssa is a gosh darn masterpiece.) 

xx

lulu

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