Ruta Sepetys last tore our hearts out with Salt to the Sea, her exploration of the human condition as seen through the eyes of refugees fleeing World War II. In her new book, The Fountains of Silence, she is intent on once again slaying us with history that is full of both beauty and terror, this time set in 1950's Spain — a country held tight in the grip of General Francisco Franco's blood-soaked dictatorship.
Our fellow tourist in this seldom-depicted setting is Daniel, the son of an American oil executive who is visiting Spain while his father brokers a lucrative deal with Franco. He's a Texan boy, through and through, but one who speaks fluent Spanish and never quite fit in with the snobby society folks who thought his Spanish mother was a bit too exotic. More than anything, he wants to be a photojournalist, but his father is intent on grooming him to take over the oil business. His family vacation in fascist Spain has been very carefully curated, but with each photo he takes, he begins to notice more and more things that don't quite add up — especially once he meets Ana.
Ana works as a maid at the Hotel Castellana Hilton, where Daniel is staying with his family. Her father was killed, her mother imprisoned for their part in the resistance against Franco's regime, casting a dark shadow across her life and those of her siblings. She needs the hotel job and she needs to keep her head down and not make any trouble. Silence is the only hope of safety in a country governed by fear. But silence becomes difficult once she is assigned to assist Daniel's family and finds herself spending more and more time with the strange American cowboy who captures the truth in his photographs. He makes her want to spill all her secrets, and nothing could be more dangerous than that.
The Fountains of Silence has everything I could possibly ask for in a work of historical fiction: Vivid and deeply researched details about a place and time I know little about, slowly unspooling mystery, intricately drawn characters who feel of their time but deeply relatable, forbidden romance, and the intense pathos of learning about a dark and terrible stretch of history that offers an alarming reflection of the times we're living in. Every time I picked it up to continue reading, I was immediately immersed, plunging back into its tumult of love, fear, anger, and hope.
I can't say I was surprised that this book is so good. Salt to the Sea is similarly consuming, but in many ways, The Fountains of Silence is more emotionally accessible. So many of the terrible ordeals in Salt to the Sea felt so alien to me; most of the characters in it begin the story already traumatized. But Daniel is different — he is trying to understand the pain that consumes the other characters in The Fountains of Silence, just as the reader is. He is our way into the story, and as he falls for Ana and for Spain, so do we.
Because above all else, this is a story about how to love something that has been broken but can be put back together again. At first, Daniel can't see the cracks of darkness that run through Ana and her country. He blunders, thinking that what he can see is all that there is. Once he learns to look beneath the surface, he finds that, despite secrets and pain, there is all the more to love. He offers his strength and privilege where he can, and it makes perfect sense that Ana falls for him in return.
I'm not a fan of books that moralize and tell me how to feel, and somehow The Fountains of Silence manages to be a story that is deeply concerned with morality and justice without ever feeling preachy. The parallels that Sepetys draws between the past and current political events are like rapier blades pressed so delicately against flesh that they manage not to break the skin. Between chapters we find quotes from speeches, letters, and articles from the time that let us see the way that the American government and capitalist leaders forgave fascism in order to do business with Franco's regime, and the central mystery of the book circles around the fates of children who are being labeled as orphans and redistributed to "desirable" families. Sepetys never says, look at this, then go and watch the news. She doesn't have to. The Fountains of Silence may be about things that went unsaid for decades, but it speaks its truth loud and clear.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.