95. ‘Guernica’ by Dave Boling

As I suspect is true for many of us, I knew of Guernica mostly in relation to the incredibly powerful Picasso painting of the same name, and that it was a Basque town that had been bombed during the Spanish Civil War. But I guess that war was overshadowed to a large extent by the war which followed and about which so much has been written – this novel shed a great deal of new light on it for me at least.

This is a first novel, and the author, married to a woman of Basque heritage, has written a quite lovely book inspired by her family while recognising exactly what I just said – that he knew nothing about Guernica until he met them. And, as the Time Out review on the back cover says, ‘if you’ve ever wondered what Picasso wanted to say with his violent, angular painting, this is the 370 page caption you were after’.

Selected at random from Mum’s books, this was a thoroughly enjoyable read despite dealing with some pretty awful subject matter. The story follows a family through the early twentieth century, the characters are truly engaging and believable, and honestly, the food descriptions made my mouth water! Central to the tale are the Navarro’s and the Ansotegui’s – fishermen and farmers, priests, dancers and smugglers.

The love story of Miguel Navarro and Miren Ansotegui is simply beautiful, set amidst the centre of Basque culture and tradition, the town of Guernica. And as the story progresses, so does the impact of the Fascist Franco regime, culminating in the massacre of innocent civilians as the Luftwaffe bomb the undefended town on a clear and sunny afternoon in April 1937, killing over a third of the 5000 inhabitants, although the exact number is unknown.

It is vivid and moving, and beautifully descriptive regarding Basque culture, the independence and identity of which is still being fought for today. The author says in the cover notes that he saw Guernica as being an early example of the terrorist attacks on innocent civilians with which we are these days all too familiar, and that he wanted to create characters who were coping with ‘traumatic circumstances in inspirational ways’, while raising awareness of this particular moment in history. I’d say he has succeeded.

There are cameo appearances from historical figures, including Picasso and the Red Baron, which add authenticity, and a heart warming end to the book thanks to a brief foray to England where many of the orphaned Basque children were cared for after being evacuated.

I give this a big thumbs up as a read – and am going to re read ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ again sooner rather than later for another perspective on a chunk of history I find myself sadly ignorant of. Well done Dave Boling. And a welcome relief after giving up on a book after about 120 pages…. I’m sorry, Philip Roth – your ‘American Pastoral’ was exhausting!

I’d love to gift Mum’s copy forward – please get in touch if you would like to read it and I’ll happily send it to you with love from both Mum and I.