Oldladyvoice

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Read 15/02/2022-18/02/2022

Rating 4 stars

Over the border from France to Spain in my European literary tour and a recent subscription book from And Other Stories. Oldladyvoice is the debut novel by Elisa Victoria, and follows nine-year-old Marina’s adventures one summer. Her mother is ill in hospital and Marina is looked after by her grandmother.

Set in Seville and Marbella, the story balances Marina’s anxiety about her mother’s health and its impact on her own future with the sweetness and hilarity of a girl on the cusp of double figures in age, who is still a child but not quite a child, too.

I’ve been to neither Seville nor Marbella. The latter is on the Costa del Sol, an area of Spain frequented by British tourists who mostly prioritise sunbathing and drinking over exploring the local culture. I’ll give that a miss.

Seville, on the other hand, is the capital of the Andalusia region and a city that looks much more my cup of tea. In the Old Town I have the pick of three UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Alcazar Palace, Seville Cathedral, and the General Archive of the Indies. I’m an archivist, of course I’m going to start there.

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Anual, CC BY 3.0

The building where the archive is housed is the Merchants’ Exchange, designed by the 16th century Spanish architect Juan de Herrera on the command of King Phillip II, who wanted his merchants to have a more appropriate place to do business than the nearby Cathedral. In 1785, King Charles III decreed that the building should be the repository for the archive of the Council of the Indies. The archive is a record of the activities of the Spanish Empire in Asia and the Americas. It includes manuscripts written by the Conquistadors, Christopher Columbus’s journal and, as part of the adminstrative records, a letter of application for a government position from the writer of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes.

Surprisingly, the archive occupies 9km of shelving, only a little more than is housed in the archive that I manage. My archive doesn’t have chequerboard flooring or a cannon pointing at any of the shelves, though.

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Hispalois, Wikimedia Commons, GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

I could be some time exploring the archive, but when I emerge, I might borrow a municipal bicycle to explore the city on two wheels.

I expect that the Alcazar Palace will be oversubscribed by Game of Thrones fans, but it would be rude not to visit and admire its mediaeval architecture, with its Islamic influences.

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If I time my visit right, I might catch the Flamenco Biennial or the Seville Festival celebrating European cinema.

I wonder whether Marina gets to visit any of Seville’s cultural sites with her grandmother. I’ll only find out by opening the book.

Reading the introduction by translator Charlotte Whittle instantly put me in mind of another coming of age tale published by And Other Stories, Lina Wolff’s debut Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs, also set in Spain. There’s an absent father, a mother who chooses slightly inappropriate boyfriends, and a young girl exploring her burgeoning sexual desires. But this is a different story. Marina isn’t a teenager yet. Her mother is absent, temporarily, too.

As the novel begins, there are also echoes of Karolína’s early life in The Equestrienne, through the mother and daughter living in the grandmother’s apartment, the absence of a father, and the mother’s strange choice of boyfriends.

Oldladyvoice opens with the description of a flamenco dress and the way its not being worn is impacting on Marina, who can see it lurking on top of her mother’s wardrobe from her bed. Without her glasses on, Marina perceives the dress as a large coiled snake. Her mother hasn’t worn it for months.

It’s a memory from when she was four, confused and bewildering. When her mother picks her up from her bed, Marina recognises in her that “she’s just another scared little girl caught up in one hell of a mess.” It is Xmas, and three men claiming to be the Wise Men have called to bring Marina’s presents. She is scared of Balthazar. The next day, Marina accidentally offends their neighbour, Tata, by not liking the present she bought Marina and not yet having the social conditioning to hide the truth. Tata manages to hold onto her resentment of Marina for the next five years. It’s an unspoken comment on the way adults can be bigger sulkers than children.

Nine year old Marina lives in a red brick apartment block with her mum and mum’s boyfriend, Domingo. She spends her weekends at her grandmother’s apartment, learning to swear and navigating the chaos. Marina is a curious mix of old before her time and innocent. The adults around her subconsciously encourage her pseudo maturity in the way they talk to her and in their refusal to infantalise her. They indulge their own childlikeness by sharing in her delight in the grotesque and the violent. Marina is my favourite kind of nine year old, one who has opinions and curiosity and isn’t afraid to share them, no matter the reaction from her responsible adults. She’s afraid of other things, mostly associated with the night, mostly connected to feeling different and expecting to be punished for it.

With the news of the progression of her mother’s illness comes an arrangement. Marina is to join the local convent school. If her mother doesn’t make it, she’ll be a boarder. In order to be admitted, heathen Marina who has little time for God and takes ethics classes instead of religion has to learn the Lord’s prayer and the catechism, before acting out the role of holy child in an interview with the school’s Mother Superior. She defines the moment as her first ever job interview. She persuades herself that the convent school will be fine because she likes the uniform.

Clothes and the way they make a person feel are a theme in the story, from the flamenco dress that makes her mother “the prettiest woman on the face of the earth” and her grandmother’s flowered nightdress to the shop bought dress that Marina wears to kindergarten and the skirt of palm tree patterned fabric patterned that her grandmother makes for her.

Some of her questionable maturity comes from the films her mother and Domingo let her watch, uncensored, as well as from the countercultural comix she swipes from her mother’s bedroom during siesta. Marina self censors when the subject matter is too dark, but absorbs a diet of “kidnapping, torture, suicide, murder, mental illness, drugs, and all the more advanced varieties of perversion” all the same. She takes a soft porn magazine into school to impress her friends, Natalia and Juan Carlos. It’s Juan Carlos who has given her the nickname Oldladyvoice, a sobriquet that alludes to the huskiness of her voice and the adult things she says. She fantasises about sexual violence while pretending to read the wholesome books her mother gives her.

Her mother schools her to be a warrior in life. “All things in life are war, she tells me, pretty much. … She tells me the world is an ugly, dirty place, full of trials … but if you can get up the nerve you can handle anything.”

Her mother has cancer, has survived two terminal diagnoses already, but is now swollen and hairless from chemotherapy. Marina doesn’t know this is the reason. She thinks her mum has cut her hair off. She doesn’t know that her mum’s puffy face is linked to the cocktail of coloured pills she takes. It’s one of the ways that Marina is resolutely nine years old, her ability to hide from the truth.

Her mother and comix are the centre of her world. She shares her first and last name with her mother. Neither of them use a patronymic. They are a family of warrior women. Marina still dreams, though, of the day when she will be old enough and tall enough to buy her own comix, rather than having to smuggle them in and out of her mum’s room while she naps. She is waiting for something interesting to happen to her, fearing that it never will.

I loved the window Marina opens into working class life in her suburb of Seville. Her observations of the children she plays with and lives among include references to absent fathers, sometimes absent mothers, limited access to toys and to private leisure space. Theirs is a world of public playing spaces, in communal plazas and municipal parks. Seeing friends outside of school is a relative rarity, as working parents don’t have time to drop off and pick up, let alone time to be in the house as a responsible adult for a pair or group of friends. Fifteen years and the length of two countries separate our experiences, but there was much I found familiar from my childhood in the world Marina inhabits.

Her holiday in Marbella offers a similar window. They stay in a chalet at a Workers’ Resort, where there’s a self-service dining room that reminded me of a carvery. There’s a cafeteria and a pool and the beach isn’t far away. It doesn’t seem like the Marbella I’ve absorbed from the British media’s depiction of it.

Marina is teased by some holidaying teens for seeming like an old woman, in the dress her grandmother made for her. I felt for her then, having been the youngest child with siblings who were technically adults by the time I was Marina’s age. Outside of school, most of my time was spent with adults. I also had plenty of homemade clothes and hand-me-downs from other children.

She briefly makes a friend, Inma, who is the middle child in a family of boys. Inma is older by 18 months, causing a meekness in Marina that she feels she owes her. At the same time, Marina feels frustration with Inma, because she is shedding her childhood and finds it easy to sneer at what she now thinks of as childish pursuits.

… what makes me mad is that she looks down her nose at the past, like she’s forgotten she was just as much of a person two summers ago. It bothers me how quick people are to trample those who were their equals just as soon as they climb up a notch. They build up all this unjustified hatred and then take it out on newbies who never did anything to them.

It’s a beautifully captured moment. As is Marina’s awkwardness at Inma’s birthday party, where she’s almost like an uninvited guest, so ignored and solitary she feels. She’s like an anthropologist, though, observing what she thinks of as “normal families and how they mix in this shallow way with people, so often and with so much ease.”

After the fortnight in Marbella is the tedium of the rest of the summer holidays, described by Marina as “a hot pond four months deep”. Towards the end, though, her mum comes home from hospital and she, Marina and Domingo move to another apartment, in a complex with its own pool. Marina finds new friends, people she will already know when she starts at the new school that won’t be the convent.

The end is hopeful but tinged with mortality. Marina impresses on her mum that she is old enough to be told the truth, to visit her if she ends up in hospital again, and the two strike a deal that also covers Marina for memories when the time comes.

I really enjoyed this debut. It’s funny and thoughtful, and Victoria has managed to make Marina believable when she could so easily have slipped into irritating caricature.

6 thoughts on “Oldladyvoice

  1. This sounds like a must read, just as Seville is a must-visit city, where despite tourists at every time of year, it’s easy to explore and enjoy the less visited more workaday communities I’m now not necessarily against visiting Marbella, as I believe it has more to offer than lager louts, I was iffy about Málaga, for similar reasons, but loved it, and found it full of interest.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Useful intel, thank you, Margaret. I shan’t dismiss either place out of hand, in that case, if we ever make it to Spain. I’ve long wanted to visit Andalusia, which I know is a huge region! Granada has been top of my list, but also a mountain town called Gaucín, where friends have stayed, which isn’t far from Málaga.

      The book is great. There’s not much detail about Seville or Marbella, but the settings in Seville sound like the workaday communities you mention.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. When you go , please don’t leave out Córdoba, a city to which I completely lost my heart, with its early history of acceptance and cooperation between Muslims, Christiand and Jews.

        Liked by 1 person

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