BookBrowse Reviews The Wonders by Elena Medel

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The Wonders

by Elena Medel

The Wonders by Elena  Medel X
The Wonders by Elena  Medel
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  • Published:
    Mar 2022, 240 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Tasneem Pocketwala
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In a Madrid of two different time periods, two women's lives echo one another. Elena Medel's The Wonders is a stylistic triumph about working-class women existing in the margins of a big city.

Spanish poet Elena Medel's debut novel The Wonders (translated by Lizzie Davis and Thomas Bunstead) flows on the thrum of two women's internal lives. Maria and Alicia, a grandmother and granddaughter who have never met, are linked by the vital force that money (and the lack thereof) represents to them, through the two generations that set them apart. As Maria leaves her small-town neighborhood for blue-collar jobs in Madrid, Alicia unwittingly follows in her footsteps in a different timeline, repeating the beats of a life dictated by poverty and working-class womanhood.

The novel's fulcrum lies in the connection between these women's life-journeys and a crucial moment in Spain's feminist history: the 2018 Women's March in Madrid (see Beyond the Book). In the 1970s, after she is abandoned by a man who got her pregnant, Maria arrives in Madrid reeling from her circumstances: the shame of unmarried motherhood in Francoist Spain, the obligation of tending to her child and her family's shunning of her. She edits her life in her head — she revises mistakes, "corrects a few gestures and almost all the decisions." Decades later, Alicia arrives in the city bitter and full of disdain — for herself and for a life that was promised to her and then snatched away.

Both complex characters, Maria and Alicia are opposed to one another in their choices and how they respond to their individual "falls." Maria follows the drudgery of her life, making do with a partner who doesn't respect her mind, before ultimately becoming politically conscious and engaging with the feminist movement. Alicia slips into the role of an uninvolved bystander in her own existence. She "doesn't enjoy her life, but her life keeps her occupied," as she resorts to promiscuous wanderings, even as she has settled with a husband she finds mediocre, and works shifts at a convenience store with a kind of enraged complacency, night after night, day after day.

Although apart in age and historical context, both women experience money as a central driving factor, forever a reminder of what their lives could have been had they not been poor. As an older Maria says early on in the novel, "You need money even to protest."

The Wonders comes together more as a series of stark, arresting vignettes than as one story. But what is audacious and brilliant about Medel's debut is the unique style she employs. The voice of the omniscient narrator interjects during Alicia and Maria's internal monologues, and the effect is that of seamless stream-of-consciousness-like narration. One particular chapter has the narrator giving way to "the voice of [Alicia's] memory," which unfolds like something that Alicia may be telling herself, relating the story of how she once had the comfortable life she felt entitled to and later came to work in Madrid.

The book's magic lies in the way Medel tells the characters' stories jumbled up, bit by bit. As the reader, you have to arrange in your mind the puzzle pieces that are deliberately presented in disorder, so that only your imagination holds the complete picture after the final delivery. Reminiscent in parts of Elena Ferrante and Virginia Woolf, Medel's The Wonders is a stunning debut about the intersection between poverty and womanhood.

Reviewed by Tasneem Pocketwala

This review first ran in the May 4, 2022 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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