Manuel de Lope’s novel The Wrong Blood is about family secrets, set just before and after Spain’s Civil War, in the Basque region. As the author says in the introduction, “The circumstances include the death of a loved one, a rape, and a birth with disastrous results.” This is a story of women dealing with the effects of war, one rich, one poor, who nevertheless come together to help each other reach their dreams. A doctor living nearby is witness and also complicit to the strange agreement the two women make. Long after the death of one of the women, a young man’s arrival at the women’s house is enough to unravel the secrets of the past.
The beauty of the writing, while slowing down the novel’s pacing, depicts the setting exactly and often provides a prevailing ominous mood. As the author says, “In this rather claustrophobic emotional context, the landscape plays an important role.” And the location for many atrocities in the fierce fight near the French-northern Spain frontiers is along the Atlantic Ocean and the Bay of Biscay, between the beautiful coastal city of San Sebastian and another beautiful coastal town of Biarritz in southern France with the Bidasoa River in between.
Readers might not recognize many places except for Biarritz and Bilbao, nor feel for characters, mostly seen from the outside, nor know much about the Basque involvement in the Civil War. But readers will be pulled along by the family secrets.
Events slowly converge to create the situation at the house called Las Cruces, high up and facing the sea. First, just before the war, a wedding there has an ominous feel.
Many further details of the wedding…might spring from the most suggestive sequences of some old-fashioned films, or from the scenes in Rubens’s painting The Garden of Love, but even in the garden of love there is room for conspiracies and slander…The green lamp suffused the gun room with an aquatic glow. The shadows were projected all together, arising from a single body, like the different heads of a mythical animal.
When three rich men in a black car, heading to the wedding, stop at the Extarri bar, one of them has a stroke in the bathroom. This is the first person affected by a chain of events. The second and major one is the innkeeper’s stepdaughter Maria Antonia Etxarri, introduced in Gabriel Garcia Marquez-like echoes from her seeing her own future: “The third man in her life, the one who would rape her, had not yet appeared, but she had a feeling that he was getting closer.” This rape happens during the war, during which the groom, a military commander, is executed only weeks after his wedding. In subsequent sections of the book called “Stillborn Fruit” and “The Wrong Womb,” Isabel, the other main character, the widow and owner of Las Cruces, will need help from her neighbor, the lame Doctor Castro, on a particularly ominous night:
It was the middle of February. Rain fell in powerful gusts. The sky showed black, the color of stormy nights, but, in this case, an unmitigated, thick blackness that not even lightning flashes could tear. India ink had been spilled on the universe. Humans had been shut up in a box of rain, in a contraption invented by God to test his creatures’ patience, and their fear. It was one of those black nights that are recorded only in the Bible and the sacred books.
When Maria Antonia, a servant at Las Cruces, much later becomes its owner, the reader wonders why. Why did Miguel Goitia, dead Isabel’s young grandson, not inherit the house? His stay at Las Cruces, because he needs a quiet place to study for his notary/lawyer exams, brings out the past.
The women left behind have had to construct their lives from war’s reality:
The war exhibited such caprices, saving certain small objects with the tactile delicacy of a blind giant and devouring property and people like the same giant in a fury...Destiny rages among mortals, obeying pacts and conflicts apparently well above their heads, in the upper spheres of chance and providence, as in the days of the mythologies…She [Maria Antonia] could admit, with muffled greed, that there had been an interplay of interests. There was credit and debit.
The novel does not provide many details about the groom’s fate. And sometimes the reader may feel bogged down by seemingly unimportant scenes. This may be the author’s way to forestall the disclosure of the secrets. But the ending is worth the wait: the reader will find answers in full, dramatic scenes.