Most of what I know about the Spanish Civil War comes from novels — Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and Andre Malraux’s “Man’s Hope.” I can add another title to that list, Mary Gordon’s “There Your Heart Lies,” her new novel about a woman’s experiences working on the side of the Republic during that war.
Marian Taylor is the child of a privileged Irish Catholic family. Her beloved brother Johnny commits suicide rather than undergo the “treatment” for his homosexuality that his father has committed him to. Marian renounces her family, and her faith, and heads off on a voyage by ship with Russell, Johnny’s lover, who also is a surgeon who is going to serve in the Republican cause. Marian accompanies him, and they get married out of convenience.
Marian’s fluency in Spanish (which she learned from servants while growing up) and her skill as a car mechanic make her invaluable in the hospitals, where she helps carry stretchers and uses her Spanish to help the wounded. Rather than making her a fierce partisan, the war sews more doubt in Marian. She has no stomach for the arguments between the communists and anarchists, who are allies in the struggle against General Francisco Franco. When Russell hears a group of soldiers using a slur for gay people, he becomes disillusioned. “What a fool I was, I believed things would be different with them, I believed them when they talked about human freedom. But they only mean freedom for people like them. They’re no different from the fascists,” Russell says.
His disillusionment mirrors Marian’s. Although no longer a person of faith, she is disappointed that she cannot reveal her feelings about churches being used as places to help and care for the wounded. “Of course it was good, of course it was right,” she tells herself. Still “she knows she’s wrong to feel this sense of loss, that a whole category that, without her knowing it, had been important to her — the sacred —quite useless now, entirely gone.”
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Russell eventually leaves the struggle, and Marian marries another doctor, Ramon, with whom she has a son, Ignacio. Never close to Ignacio, Marian leaves him in Spain to be raised by her in-laws when she leaves Spain in the early 1950s.
Gordon juxtaposes the civil war era with Avondale, Rhode Island, in 2009. Marian, now in her 90s, runs a nursery, and is an environmental activist. Her greatest admirer in her family is her granddaughter Amelia. When Marian tells Amelia she will inherit the house she lives in, Amelia requests something else for her inheritance: “Your past,” Amelia tells Marian. “I don’t know who you are.” Their conversations lead not only to family discoveries for Amelia, but a profound understanding of the meaning of faith and commitment.
In her preface and acknowledgements, Gordon gives readers a capsule history of the war, discusses some of her research for this novel, and offers a few nonfiction titles for readers who want to learn more about the struggle behind this well constructed, moving novel.
“There Your Heart Lies”
By Mary Gordon (Pantheon Books, $26.95)