At the start of the year I set myself a challenge to read 12 novels in translation – one a month – and I created a reading list to spur me on. Although this is only my second post in my 2018 In Translation challenge, I have read three of the books I planned to, although not quite in the order I planned! This Too Shall Pass was scheduled for February, but here I am in April only just getting around to reading and reviewing it.
It’s my mother’s funeral, and if that’s not bad enough, I’m forty
So begins This Too Shall Pass which opens with Blanca, our narrator attending her mother’s funeral. Consumed by grief at the loss of the most important relationship in her life, Blanca decides to spend a week at her mother’s holiday home in the seaside resort of Cadaqués, along with not one but two ex-husbands, her two sons, her best friends and their respective partners.
In terms of action, there isn’t much as our cast of characters eat dinner, smoke joints, take siestas and do a bit of sailing. Blanca subsumes her grief in sex and desire. She has started sleeping with her ex-husband Oscar again, while continuing her affair with a married man Santi and flirting with an attractive stranger whom she saw at her mother’s funeral. Despite this proliferation of relationships, Blanca can’t evade her growing sense of isolation as she muses on the complicated relationship she shared with her mother.
To the best of my knowledge, the only thing that momentarily alleviates the sting of death – and life – without leaving a hangover is sex.
Blanca turns to sex and physical contact to block out her grief. Her mother’s death and turning forty have heightened her awareness of her own fading youth, and moments of contact with another human being allow her to forget her own mortality for a fleeting time. There is a strong sense of hedonism and a little light-hearted farce in this aspect of the book, but this is tempered by the moments when Blanca is facing her loss head on and directly addressing the mother she so misses.
Busquets skillfully captures the disorientation in the aftermath of a parent’s death, that sense of unmooring that happy memories can induce. As she tries to come to terms with her loss, Blanca begins to re-evaluate her romantic relationships and find the real source of her strength and perseverance.
Blanca is a complicated character, at once both frivolous and serious and often difficult to warm to. I am not sure I would want to be her friend. At one point in the book, it is hard not to agree with her friend Elisa when she berates Blanca saying,
You don’t give a shit about anyone. Except for your children and maybe your mother… And you loved her and now you’re sad and a little bit lose, but that doesn’t give you the right to turn anyone’s life upside down…Don’t kid yourself – the person who lives in a cage is you, and your totally make-believe, fantasy world has about as much to do with reality as you.
Elisa is right in some ways. Blanca is privileged, wealthy and self-centered and yet regardless of background, her grief is real and as she starts to come to terms with her loss she becomes a more recognisable and engaging character. Eventually she finds solace not in the arms of a mysterious stranger or her married lover, but in a moment of transcendence by her mothers’ resting place.
Reminiscent in a way to Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, This Too Shall Pass explores the loss of that fundamental mother/ daughter relationship and the actions that it can drive us to. Busquets does not dig too deep into the actual relationship between Blanca and her mother. There are hints that it was difficult, passionate and volatile, but the lack of detail allows Blanca’s story to be in some ways, more easy to relate to, more universal. The final pages of this short book contain some of the most beautifully written passages on grief, expertly translated by Valerie Miles.
You gave me the gift of this outrageous laugh, the thrill of being alive, the ability to surrender to things completely, the love of games, contempt for everything you thought made life smaller and more constraining: pettiness, disloyalty, envy, fear, stupidity and cruelty more than anything else. And a sense of fairness. Nonconformity. The dazzling awareness of joy at the moment you have it in your hand, before it flies away.
While the beautifully described setting may suggest a light beach read (and I defy anyone to not want to book a holiday after reading it), This Too Shall Pass has, at its heart, a more serious message about finding yourself after losing a significant loved one.
Next up in my 2018 In Translation Challenge is the wild and wonderful Vernon Subutex by Virginie Despentes, translated by Frank Wynne.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!