My rating: 4 stars
The evening after I finished reading Nada by the Spanish writer Carmen Laforet, I was under the impression that nothing exceptionally memorable had happened plot-wise throughout the book. That sensation is not really accurate, though. Andrea, the main character in this novel, had a year full of new experiences, but the way in which they are narrated made them feel almost ordinary, when in fact much changed in her life. This is the story of a young woman who was trying to become independent. Being an orphan living on a meagre pension, she struggled to reconcile poverty and hunger with her friends’ way of life.
Andrea arrived in Barcelona alone to start anew and attend university. Although she felt anxious, she quickly became enchanted by the city. She was staying with close relatives at their house on Aribau Street. At the time of her arrival, seven people lived there already – her grandmother, her aunt Angustias, her uncles Román and Juan, plus his wife Gloria and their son, and Antonia, the housemaid. One of the allures of this book is to discover the characters’ personalities and back stories while reading, so I won’t say much about them. But, from early on, it became apparent that there was a conflict between Juan and Román involving Gloria.
The first character Andrea had to learn to deal with was Angustias. She was authoritarian, seemed to be fairly conservative and kept trying to repress Andrea. These characteristics can be inferred from her actions and are not straightforwardly penned. In fact, that happens with the other members of the family as well. It was via their interactions with Andrea that I started forming my own opinions about them, which made me feel involved in the story. They all seemed to be on the verge of madness to some extent.
Despite having a huge desire to be free and to become her own person, Andrea really didn’t know how to achieve that at first. But, in order to free herself from Angustias’s pressure to act in a demure way, she started to forge friendships at university, when before she had avoided speaking to her colleagues. Her favourite one was Ena, whom she became quite close to. And, although Andrea wished to keep her family life separated from her friendships, Ena discovered that Román was the well-known violinist she had once spoken to her about and insisted on being introduced to him.
From the beginning of the novel, there is a mysterious ambiance surrounding Andrea’s family. In the end, it may feel like there was no massive revelation about the past of the various characters, but we do get to know much about it. It’s just that that knowledge is gained gradually with each new interaction between the characters. There isn’t one single revelatory moment. I ended up quite appreciating this way of telling the story, which was enhanced by the little teasers dropped throughout.
The narration is not completely flawless, nevertheless. Sometimes it felt like the story was dragging on slightly. And I was also left wanting more explanations about an event that happened near the end involving one of the members of the family, despite understanding that it was difficult to achieve that, since the story is told from Andrea’s perspective.
This novel about female friendship and a broken family has quite a special last chapter, as it conveys a mix of hope, longing and nostalgia. What is further proof that something quite relevant happened, despite seeming that it hasn’t. Interestingly, the (inaccurate) feeling of nothingness I got from the book is in line with the title. ‘Nada’ means ‘nothing’ in both Spanish (the language in which it was originally written) and Portuguese (the language I read it in). That the translation into English is also titled Nada is particularly interesting.