IN BRIEF

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The Independent Culture
2 Variable Cloud by Carmen Martin Gaite, trs Margaret Jull Costa, Harvill Press pounds 15.99/pounds 8.99.

Carmen Martin Gaite is one of Spain's leading novelists, winner of prizes ever since her first novel in 1954. Three years ago she broke a silence of 14 years with Nubosidad variable, a big novel and a big event in Spain. It made number one on the best-seller list for weeks.

For a British reader, the subject is oddly familiar. Two middle-aged women, whose relationships and lives are static and strained, have moved apart since their adolescence because of a long-ago mix-up over a boyfriend. They meet again at a terrible private view of a painter they both despise, and start a kind of correspondence which discloses their re-evaluation of their lives, selves, and friendship.

The book shifts between the two. The friendship is lopsided: the one who became a psychoanalyst is weaker, the one who needs to write to the other; this other, who has a husband and grown-up children and "should have been a writer", has always been a source of weird strength. So the psychoanalyst writes letters to the other but does not send them, and the should-have-been-writer writes a diary. The two sets of writing churn side by side through the novel like two dolphins coming up for air at different times. The women and their writings get together again in the end, on a beach in a thunderstorm, papers all over the place, and wondered at, of course, by two men.

So the theme, woman re-evaluates her life, is hardly original, but the Madrid setting and references exoticise it, let it breathe. I suspect in Spain it encapsulated a great deal of social comment about the last 15 years which we miss. There's plenty of dry wit, especially aimed at artistic pretension, and some enjoyable local metaphors, particularly the plumbing problems endemic to Madrid apartments which screw up relationship between neighbours: an image for the difficulties of, well, relationships generally. Or the carve-up of space in the psychoanalyst's Madrid apartment. The mother's relations with her grown-up daughter, who has relationship problems of her own which the mother cannot bring herself to listen in to on the extension, are beautifully incomplete.

Ruth Padel

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