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Review: All is Silence, By Manuel Rivas. Harvill Secker, £16.99


Galicia, in Spain, is both one of the most remote of Western Europe's regions, and cosmopolitan, with its economic emigrants sending news across the oceans.

Manuel Rivas (born 1957), its best-known contemporary writer, has written mainly of the Civil War, particularly in his beautiful The Carpenter's Pencil (1998) and Books Burn Badly (2006). All is Silence is set later, the first part in the 1960s and then the 1980s, and focuses on how local criminals control a coastal town, where smuggling is the only employment apart from meagre and dangerous fishing. It is still a relevant theme at a time when the head of the Galician government is under pressure because of his past friendship with a convicted drug smuggler.

It opens with three troubled children: two boys, rough Brinco and softer Fins, and barefoot Leda, the fearless girl who draws the boys along the beaches, where everything from coffins to oranges have tipped overboard from the ships steaming through the wild seas. When the children discover a hidden cache of whisky, the town's crime boss, Mariscal, finds them and teaches them the lesson that rules the coast: mouths are not for talking, but keeping silent, just as eyes and ears are not for seeing or hearing. Mariscal, impeccable in white suit and gloves, believes he can purchase everyone's complicity. As the Franco dictatorship ends, the relatively harmless smuggling of cigarettes and whisky turns to cocaine, with its international alliances, huge money – and murders.

Rivas takes us inside the minds of villagers, fishermen, the inn-keeper, the children's parents, the priest, and women up to their waists in water picking cockles off the rocks. He narrates, too, from the vantage point of the police tracking Mariscal's gang. All is Silence, though, is a thriller whose aims are dual; one intellectual, to show how corruption can take over a society, and one emotional, to follow the development of the three children. Rivas, ably translated here by Jonathan Dunne, combines a lyric gift, full of rich imagery and a touch of fantasy, with bald, direct prose.