The Winterlings

Written by Cristina Sánchez-Andrade Samuel Rutter (trans.)
Review by G. J. Berger

At the start of the Spanish Civil War in the summer of 1936, young orphaned sisters Dolores and Saladina (nicknamed “the Winterlings”) are cared for by their grandfather. During those desperate times, Grandfather has money, food, and more influence than anyone else in their poor village in northwest Spain. But one day soldiers seize him, strip him naked and shoot him. A stranger secretes the Winterlings away to England.

Decades later, the sisters come back to the run-down family home. They arrive with a cart full of provisions, one cow, four sheep, two sewing machines, and hopes of a peaceful country life. Their uncle, the village schoolteacher, is still at his post, as are the gluttonous village priest and the dentist who extracts teeth from corpses.

The Winterlings’ return stirs up all manner of strange goings-on. The now-grown son of Grandfather’s former household maid pays them a visit, which does not end well. Farm animals scatter or die. The village dentist “comes out” as a flamboyant cross-dresser. The local expert in chickens, roosters, and capons becomes more and more like his fowl. Rumors of old murders and burials consume the villagers, and the villagers wonder why the Winterlings have returned.

The enigmatic characters and storylines prod the reader about the deeper, darker aspects of what it is to be human. Sánchez-Andrade’s writing is lyrical, never dull, and a joy to read. Details and dialogue are spare and well-chosen—tragic, humorous, often jarring. Every page contains surprises. The Winterlings is hard to put down and harder to forget.