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The Bitter Taste of Time

by Béa Gonzalez

It’s a familiar literary scenario: in a lush, troubled country lives a family of women. Their men have all died tragically or abandoned them scandalously. The iron-willed matriarch maintains order through numerous disasters, but her controlling presence is resented by her equally headstrong daughter or granddaughter. Someone is driven mad by thwarted passion, someone else dies of a broken heart. Oh, and the food! Mountains of it! The women cook to express frustrated creativity, eat to pacify frustrated desire.

In The Bitter Taste of Time, the setting is a village in Galicia, Spain, the political troubles begin with the Spanish Civil War and continue through to the chaos following the death of Franco, and the family is named Encarna. The Encarna women rent rooms to travellers stopping for the night in the village of Canteira – first in their imposing family mansion, then later, as their wealth increases, in a grand hotel built to accommodate visitors to the town’s hot springs. The road to prosperity is fraught with peril. Illness, suicide, and rape befall the Encarna family; violence dogs them to the story’s end. There’s no shortage of drama here, but Gonzalez, a first-time novelist, is not a strong enough stylist to give the story the emotional depth and impact it should really have. The tone is relentlessly breathless; galloping, dash-strewn, paragraph-long sentences abound. The narrative maintains such a consistent fever pitch that fresh misfortunes lose their power to shock, and the gouging out of a character’s eye seems scarcely more disturbing than an accidental pregnancy or a wayward husband. The language is always emphatic, but rarely evocative. Much is made, for example, of the quantity and desirability of Cecelia’s cooking – but how are her sardine empanadas shaped, what do they look like?

This is not to say that The Bitter Taste of Time is not an engaging read. Not surprisingly, the Encarnas’ eventful lives are an ongoing source of scandalized entertainment to the rest of their quiet village, and Gonzalez occasionally pauses to wonder at the pleasure people take in hearing about the misfortunes of others. But Gonzalez’s heroines delight in gossip as much as anyone else. Spinning stories out of other people’s problems allows them to briefly forget their own. That’s the fun of this novel; it reads like a long string of juicy rumours, told by an excitable friend.