Boyd Tonkin: Memories of the pain in Spain

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Seventy summers ago, Spain versus Germany meant more than the final of a football tournament. The outcome differed, too. When the forces of the Spanish government made their last-ditch push on the Ebro against Franco's rebels in July 1938, ferocious bombing by the Nazi planes of the Condor Legion helped to halt the advance. Within months, Madrid fell and a 40-year ice age began.

Already, by 1938, Orwell had published Homage to Catalonia, and the tide of English-language writing inspired by the Spanish Civil War was in full spate. It never really ebbed. More recently, Anglophone biographers and historians – such as Paul Preston, Ian Gibson and Antony Beevor – filled the vacuum left by the post-Franco pact of silence in Spain. That period has now ended, with Spanish history and fiction (such as Javier Cercas's superb Soldiers of Salamis) revisiting the war and its aftermath.

Yet the tragedy of Republican Spain remains elusive on the ground. In a blandly pretty park in south Granada stands the summer home of Federico García Lorca – murdered, the gay, avant-garde poet, dramatist and activist who embodied the rebels' worst fears, in August 1936. I disagree with the verdict of Victoria Hislop's heroine, in her novel The Return (Review, £17.99), that the Huerta de San Vicente has "as little soul as the parkland". But, like the Civil War, it hides away, screened by trees from humdrum modernity.

In her Cretan-set debut The Island, Hislop (below) signalled that she intended to do something interesting with the conventions of the summer blockbuster. The Return repeats the formula: it presents a youngish British traveller in search of escape, whose cheerful ignorance of history stands in for that of the implied reader. Here, PR exec Sonia flees a pompous banker husband to pursue her passion for dancing in Granada with a wild-child friend, Maggie. After a laborious set-up, in which a café-owner piques Sonia's curiosity, we drop into a historical saga which follows the fortunes – and crushing misfortunes – of the local Ramírez family in the Civil War. Hislop's bocadillo wraps a dry chunk of chick-lit loaf around a much spicier, fiercer – and more nourishing – filling.

Tourist motifs do abound - flamenco, bullfighting, gypsy guitarists – but Hislop takes care to show what they once meant. In 1936, teenage flamenco queen Mercedes Ramírez scandalously falls for a gitano strummer, while her brother Ignacio's feats in the bullring make him a rightist "celebrity mascot". Hislop's history is reliable; her judgement on it sound. Slower, atmospheric episodes work best: the reign of terror in Granada's "island of fascism"; the ragged stream of refugees who flee Malaga; the "vision of hell" of Antonio Ramírez, forced to labour on Franco's memorial. But the set-piece battle scenes can misfire, largely because they come too thick and fast.

The Return aims to open the eyes, and tug the heartstrings, of readers who mostly won't have read Orwell, let alone Cercas. Beyond some clunkily didactic patches, it succeeds. These days, the battle of historical memory against forgetting has to be fought on many fronts. Hislop deserves a medal for opening a breach into the holiday beach-bag.