I have never been to Spain. I have never stayed on a bull ranch just outside of Seville, where the heat beats down on the olive groves, and the smell of saffron permeates the thick atmosphere. I have never breathed in the air there, "which smells like fruit and sun and the color blue."
But after reading Small Damages I feel like I have.
A small disclaimer here: I am obsessed with landscape. I am deeply fascinated by the way place helps shape the people who live there; how the smells and sounds and tactile details of place can influence them; how the stories embedded in the dirt, inside the trunk of a tree, and settled at the bottom of a river can nurture them. In fiction, a vividly drawn landscape can ground the reader. It can help the reader rest comfortably inside the story because she knows by way of her senses where she is. Beth Kephart is a master at this. She creates landscape in a glorious way. With lyrical prose that rings unique and familiar all at the same time, she opens the reader's ears, eyes, nose and skin she transports the reader smack into the middle of the world she has created. I have recently learned that Beth considers landscape an actual character in her stories, and I was not surprised to hear this. As I got deeper and deeper into Small Damages, I felt just as much of a connection with Spain as I did with Kenzie, Estela and Esteban, the central characters in the story.
And what about those three? What about Kenzie, Estela and Esteban?
Beth creates them, too, in a glorious way. A pregnant Kenzie is forced by her mother to live at the ranch in Seville until she gives birth to her baby, who will then be adopted by a Spanish couple. Estela, the "old cook" is given the responsibility of taking care of Kenzie, the "stubborn American," and the two lock horns as they work together in the kitchen. Esteban is the horse wrangler on the ranch, and although he and Kenzie do not have the same kind of conflict, they are distant with one another. Slowly, slowly though, Kenzie begins to accept and appreciate both Estela and Esteban, and they, in turn, do the same with her.
And here, in my opinion, is where Kephart's skill and intuition are utterly breathtaking. These relationships build and grow at a measured, deliberate pace, which mirrors Spain's energy perfectly. The heavy, logy heat; the occasional dramatic flash of a storm; the meticulous process of chopping and mixing and frying a meal; the ebb and flow of gypsy music hanging in the air all these parallel the organic, tender and real ways Kenzie, Estela and Esteban come to know and love one another.
The alchemy between the landscape and the characters is magical. Truly. I finished Small Damages feeling both like I needed to visit Spain and had visited Spain all at the same time. And I certainly felt like I had come to know and love Kenzie, Estela and Esteban almost as much as they had one other.
I highly recommend this story to both young adult and adult readers.
Other Books Set in Seville
A handful of other novels have been set in Seville, including The Blind Man of Seville by Robert Wilson, Digital Fortress by Dan Brown, The Seville Communion by Arturo Peréz-Reverte, and The Orange Girl by Jostein Gaarder.
This review was originally published in August 2012, and has been updated for the July 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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