Book Review: Albi by Hilary Shepherd

Book - Albi by Hilary ShepherdSet during the Spanish Civil War, and beginning in 1938, this is a novel which captures perfectly the mixture of fear, excitement and uncertainty experienced by ordinary citizens in rural Spain. Albi is nine years old when the soldiers arrive in his village. Some say the war is over, and some say that it’s not, but it seems like everyone else knows what’s going on apart from him. They say he’s too young, but he’s determined to understand. Told from Albi’s perspective, the story is vivid and, though fictional, it feels very real.   

Now that his Papa must use crutches to get around, and his elder brother Manolo has gone off to fight and not yet returned, Albi feels a weight of responsibility on his small shoulders. He must take care of the flock, water the animals and work the land, while his three older sisters work in the local paper factory, and his friends go to school. But things begin to change. His best friend Carlos is full of gossip, and determined to spy on the soldiers. Everyone in his family seems to be arguing, and there are secrets everywhere. Albi is given a special permit, to allow him to graze his animals outside the village, and he soon begins to notice things, to discover that all is not as it seems.

There are rumours of the regresado, those village boys like his brother who went off to fight, and returned worn out, with beards and secrecy, and the constant worry that they will be discovered, imprisoned and killed, for being on the wrong side. They appear and disappear, and are said to be hiding somewhere, though nobody knows where.

One day Albi is sent to visit his grandparents, up on the Meseta, and he discovers more than he was expecting, receiving a shock that will stay with him his whole life. There are secret messages, and packages which he must deliver to the right person, and El Ciego – the blind man, who appears to see far more than anyone else.

Albi meets Mena, the young Valenciana, who is beautiful and kind but doesn’t know how to wash clothes. He sees things he isn’t supposed to see, always wondering what his sisters are up to, as they discuss secret grown-up things out of earshot, arguing with his Papa. Meanwhile, the Guardia continue to take their food and the animals are sold off one by one. Eventually, he discovers what happened to his brother.

The story switches between Albi as a child and Alberto, now grown up, who begins to remember things, some of which he would much rather forget. The memories rush into his mind, unbidden, unprotected – secrets which he’s kept all his life, until now. He still lives in the little house where he grew up, and it seems like everywhere there are ghosts from the past, waiting to confront him, to remind him what happened all those years ago.

I was a bit unsure about the use of present tense narrative for the story told by Alberto as an adult, but it does help to differentiate between the two periods, and I soon got used to this style. The third person narrative used to describe Albi’s experience as a child is much easier to read.

I loved the detail in this book, and the sense of time never-ending, as seen from the perspective of a child. Albi’s life is full of animals and the natural environment, as he wanders the hillsides with his flock, and there is a constant sense of something terrible about to happen. It is a coming of age story in both senses of the word – as young Albi and the old man Alberto both face change and learn to live with it.

This is a carefully crafted tale, beautifully told, which deals sensitively and honestly with the effects of civil war on family life. It also deals with issues of domestic violence, dementia, depression, alcoholism, poverty and disability, and, most brutally, with the pain of betrayal, and the picking of sides. Young Albi thinks he knows which side he’s on, but he does have moments of doubt, and even as an adult, his memories are muddled and confused. It is only when his friend’s granddaughter appears, asking questions, making a documentary and digging up the past, that Alberto is able to face the memories at last.

Albi by Hilary Shepherd is published by Honno Press.

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Declaration: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Albi by Hilary Shepherd

  1. Hi Rachel,

    Thank you so much for reviewing my book and for reading it so perceptively. It’s a huge privilege.

    I was interested in what you said about the present tense. It didn’t really occur to me that the switches in tense might be difficult to get used to. The present tense scenes were such a delight to write that I’m using this dual technique again in the book I’m working on now but you’ve given me very useful food for thought…

    • It took a bit of getting used to, but was actually quite helpful later on in the book as the two time periods interchanged more often.

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