Stone in a Landslide, is a novella by Maria Barbal who, born in 1949 is considered the most influential living Catalan author and has written eight novels. Admittedly, I’d never heard of her but when this slimline volume popped through the post, I was drawn to the synopsis:
The beginning of the 20th century: 13-year-old Conxa leaves her home village in the Pyrenees to work for her childless aunt. After years of hardship she finds love with Jaume – a love that will be thwarted by the Spanish Civil War. Approaching her own death, Conxa looks back on a life in which she has lost everything except her own indomitable spirit.
The fact that she had won several awards and a quick scan through to get a sense of Barbal’s writing style gave me confidence that this story might be a little gem.
From the synopsis, I expected drama and a complicated love story. The drama is there, underneath the surface, but very subtly conveyed. The character is looking back on her life – at her departure from her childhood home at young age, the experience of falling in love and raising a child and of being caught up in events caused by the Spanish Civil War while not having much understanding of why it was happening. While there were many poignant memories and moments in the book, I felt that Conxa’s voice maintained a gentle detached quality which conveyed realistically, the perspective of a woman at the end of her life.
Barbal’s writing is simple but not simplistic, which makes for a fluid and enjoyable read. The best way that I can describe this style is ‘streamlined’ as the experiences, thoughts and impressions of the protagonist are captured in short chapters and images that provoke sympathy with the characters in the book. I really enjoyed the way that she describes her careworn mother;
“Her tiredness must have held her trapped, like a sparrow in a snare.”
Female characters are important in the story and are a strong influence on Conxa, whether it be her hardworking mother, spirited aunt Tia or her friend Delina, suspicious of men and the “illusion of love”. Barbal explores the traditional roles of men and women in rural Catalonia and how a woman is so central to home-life when Conxa is dreaming of having a son:
“A boy will be a man. And a man has the strength to deal with the land, the animals, to build. But I didn’t see it so clearly. When I thought about the families I knew well, I saw the woman as the foundation stone. If I thought about my home, it was my mother who did all the work or organised others to do it. Not to mention Tia. The woman had the children, raised them, harvested, took care of the pigsty, the chicken coop, the rabbits. She did the housework and so many other things…”
I also loved the imagery of the environment, in particular one passage where Conxa talks about picking mushrooms – I could almost smell the earth and feel her joy in the simple pleasure of it all.
I only felt a little sad that the book didn’t paint a better picture of Jaume, who Conxa falls in love with. While the relationship forms an important part of the book at times I felt that I didn’t know him at all. This is why I would say that the women in Conxa’s life were more rounded characters and also more central to the book than the love story.
Stone in a Landslide was a pleasure to read. I was impressed at how the writing was emotive but restrained, and it was descriptive without being indulgent. I really heard Conxa’s voice. I felt I was listening to her experiences which were that of a lifetime covered in just a few pages. A wonderful glimpse into a life of beauty and of upheaval.
8 out of 10
More information about Peirene Press can be found here.
What short books have you enjoyed lately?