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Proving that good things come in small packages, Elia Barcelo's "The Goldsmith's Secret" is a deliciously mysterious and alluring novella; Barcelo has the knack of a gifted story-teller using only a few sentences to draw in her reader and keep him, or her, entranced until the end.
The narrator is the eponymous goldsmith who, when the story opens, is middle-aged and reflecting on his life, focussing on a brief but passionate affair with Celia, an older woman - and friend of his mother - when he was a youth. In spite of what he hears of her from his friends and family, the headstrong determination of youth makes him deaf to their opinions. Decades later, returning to the Spanish town where he grew up, the goldsmith hopes that he might meet up with Celia but, instead he meets a young woman who, it would appear, takes him back in time. On this winter's night, sitting alone in New York, the goldsmith tries to make sense of his memories and separate the reality from the fantasy.
The thing that struck me most about this memorable novella is the way I felt an intense pangs of nostalgia for times and places that have never been mine. The Spain of the fifties, seventies and nineties is captured so beautifully that I felt like that world was mine too. So too the does the image of Celia, the "black widow" according to local gossip, prove as alluring to the reader as to her young admirer.
Barcelo's choice and arrangement of words is masterful. Novella this may be but the detail of the scenes and the fully rounded characters - depicted only through the words of the narrator - suggest a more substantial work. We learn only as much as we need to know about the characters but, in spite of this economic style, the beautiful and atmospheric prose paints wonderful pictures.
Sadly the technical aspect of the story-telling does not match the beauty of the prose. Whether because of some failings in the translation or because of some deficiencies in the original telling, the plot does unravel a little quite early on and this proved to be an irritation. I started to wonder whether it was the narrator or me that was confused, something that the artistry could not overcome; in fact it feels rather as if Barcelo has focussed too much on the presentation of the story and forgotten to look at the mechanics.
"The Goldsmith's Secret" is a stylish little read even if it's a little unsatisfactory in the final execution. It reminded me a little of Lloyd Jones's "Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance"; a charming love but dark love story against an irresistible backdrop.
Review first published at www.curiousbookfans.co.uk
Thanks to Maclehose Press for providing a review copy