After his mother dies in childbed, and his father swiftly follows with a mortally broken heart, Justo Ansotegui marshals his two younger brothers to run their farm behind the Basque community of Guernica. Hardened by labour, Justo turns into the village strong man and comically charms a local beauty, with whom he has a daughter, Miren. With the farm barely sufficient for one small family, Justo dispatches his brothers, Xabier to the seminary, Josepe to Lekeitio, a fishing village.
Years later, during the Civil War, Josepe helps to smuggle his friend's son Miguel into Guernica after a stand-off with the Guardia in Lekeitio. Meeting Miren in the market, Miguel is enchanted, and standing up to her legendary father, wins her hand. So far, so Arcadian.
David Boling's agreeable characters are cheerily flat, and his dynastic plot has little subtlety. Speaking Basque had, by the mid-1930s, become "a jailable offence" but, despite a few glances towards the rise of fascism and Franco's assault on beleaguered Republicans, Boling's artless style celebrates a fiercely independent peasant life. With a title like Guernica, however, there is little chance of a joyous outcome.
The intended heartiness of the rustic idyll generates a sense of ominous calm. It explodes halfway through this saga, in the Luftwaffe's experiment, at Franco's invitation, of carpet-bombing the town and strafing survivors with machine guns. Children fused together, mothers crushed under rubble, old men incinerated – the horror is amplified by the hideous cynicism of attacking a civilian population.
This almost naive approach to the book's dramatic core is a courageous tack for a debut novelist. Guernica has little of the political menace of other novels sympathetic to Basque suffering, although Justo's wider family's response to the slaughter gives greater depth to most of Boling's shattered characters. His narrative never quite shrugs off the sentimentality of its pastoral first half, but it rewards persistence with flashes of heroism, and a resilient optimism.