Gabriel Urza’s All That Followed* is a quiet book about dramatic events.
Set in the Basque Country, the novel is told from three perspectives: Joni, an older American teacher who’s been living in Muriga since the 1940s; Mariana, a young widow whose husband José was abducted and killed five years before the novel opens; and Iker Abarzuza, the young man imprisoned in the Salto del Negro for that murder.
When the novel opens, the 2004 train bombings in Madrid have reminded everyone in Muriga of a time they’d rather forget: when the usual simmering tension between separatist protestors (many of them teenagers) and the forces of order boiled over into violence. Joni, Mariana, and Iker recall the fateful weeks leading up to José’s kidnapping and the roles they played, knowingly and not, in each other’s lives.
There’s no one dark secret or startling revelation at the end of the novel, though each of the main characters reveals something closely guarded—a troubled family, a personal failing, a lapse in judgment. Instead, this is a quietly gripping novel about choice and community, as well as the dangers and exhilaration of both. All three major characters struggle to find their place in Muriga, Joni because even after fifty years he’s still an outsider (he speaks Spanish but not Basque), Mariana because she feels hemmed in by her marriage, and Iker because he’s a teenager who’s not sure whether to take the path of revolution or personal fulfillment.
I came to this book knowing very little of Basque culture (aside from what I picked up from Malcom Brooks’s Painted Horses), and it was fascinating to see it from the perspective of characters living in it, but at some remove, rather like the way a reader feels when absorbed in a book. (Mr. Urza, by the way, has lived in the Basque region and his family is from the area). Though it was at times difficult to keep track of the different timelines in the novel, I appreciated the novelist’s command of subtly-shifting characters, and decision not to dwell on the sensational aspects of the story.
Mr. Urza’s writing is graceful and neat, his descriptions of the town and its inhabitants memorable. The last lines in paragraphs often pack an emotional punch, as here:
In the summers I would return from a day at San Jorge to find Nerea in the kitchen beating a half dozen eggs—a fork in one hand, a new translation of an Orwell novel in the other—wearing one of my work shirts unbuttoned and open against the afternoon heat. These are the days against which I have measured the rest of my life. (120)
All That Followed is an extremely promising debut. Recommended.
[And, fellow Buckeyes who remember Denney Hall: you’ll like, as I did, the acknowledgments pages with the list of Ohio State professors, wonderful people all.]
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.