Book: The Return

The book: The Return, by Victoria Hislop

The edition: Headline Review paperback, 582 pages, with author’s note

The story: when Sonia travels to Granada for the first time, she’s just a tourist, here to dance. Then a chance encounter gives her the opportunity to learn about Spain’s difficult past: a café owner starts to tell her the story of the Ramirez family, and how the civil war changed their lives forever.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: is it possible to see all of the shortcomings of a book and still like it? Because that’s my reaction to The Return. After reading her first, The Island, I kind of knew what to expect, and I’m glad to say that Hislop did a good job in making better what were weaknesses in her first novel — mostly in reaching a better balance between the present-time frame story, and the historical thread. Unfortunately the result is weak in other aspects, especially so in that it reads too much like a history book in telling you about the war (even putting a few characters right in the middle of it all, things are still more told that shown).
So why did it captivate me so much? Hislop is good at making the reader touch and experience “firsthand” what the day-to-day reality of that war was. She is good at recreating the world such as her characters would experience it. And at the same time she knows how to use a freshening touch — in this case it’s the dance and music part — to avoid too bleak an effect.

The part with spoilers: aka the unbelievable part: How can I believe that a 16-year-old girl can travel on her own back and forth throughout Spain, crossing fronts, without anything bad ever happening to her? How can I believe that a mother could send her only daughter on a hopeless search through a war-torn country, “because she is in love”? And finally, while I do believe Mercedes would keep the memory of Javier close to her heart (her first love), how can I believe that Javier would even recall Mercedes? She was a good dancer, nothing more to him!

Language & writing: this must be one of the aspect that made me like this book. I like Hislop’s prose, her delicate balance of Spanish words, and the way she makes the city real to the reader’s eyes.

Links to better understand this book:

Read this if: if you want to know more about the Spanish Civil War, or if you generally appreciate historical novels set in a time of war.

Wondrous Words Wednesday: Victoria Hislop on Spain

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a weekly meme where we share new (to us) and interesting (to us, again) words we encountered in our readings. See this week round-up at BermudaOnion’s blog!

My words for this week come from The Return by Victoria Hislop. The book is mostly set in Spain and two very iconic activities have a major role, so most of my words this week are actually Spanish.


Without giving anything away, I can tell you that one of the characters is interested in bullfighting. From him I learned the following words:

  • verónica: n. a maneuver in bullfighting in which the matador stands with both feet fixed in position and swings the cape slowly away from the charging bull. (source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, via
  • muleta: n. a short red cape suspended from a hollow staff, used by a matador to maneuver a bull during the final passes before a kill. (source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, via
  • traje de luces: n. (lit. suit of lights) the traditional clothing that Spanish bullfighters wear in the bullring. The term originates from the sequins and reflective threads of gold or silver. (source: Wikipedia)

The following video, a movie trailer, shows a torero in his traje de luces, executing veronicas with a muleta (the video does not include extremely violent scenes, but watch at your own risk):


It is not a mystery that flamenco also has a big role in the novel. Here are my flamenco words:

  • alegría
  • bulería
  • soleá
  • siguiriya

These are all different rhythms for dancing flamenco. The differences are quite technical, so if you are interested I found this explanation. To give you a better idea, enjoy some videos:

The alegría rhythm in its essential aspect (actually, a flamenco lesson!):

The completely different rhythm of a siguiriya:

And a soleá show:


And to finish off, a German word!

This was a real place, she thought, nothing ersatz here.

ersatz: adj.(of a product) made or used as an inferior substitute for something else. Not real or genuine.


(All definitions are taken from the Concise Oxford English Dictionary © 2008 via unless otherwise stated.)

Wondrous Words Wednesday: John Irving

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a weekly meme where we share new (to us) and interesting (to us, again) words we encountered in our readings. See this week round-up at BermudaOnion’s blog!

This week I am reading John Irving’s Last Night in Twisted River and from the many (mostly food-related) new words, I decided to share two that in some sense give a taste of the book.


The wanigans themselves were disappearing.

According to The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, via, a wanigan can be defined as follows:

  1. New England & Upper Northern U.S. a. A boat or small chest equipped with supplies for a lumber camp. b. Provisions for a camp or cabin.
  2. Alaska a. A small house, bunkhouse, or shed mounted on skids and towed behind a tractor train as eating and sleeping quarters for a work crew. b. An addition built onto a trailer house for extra living or storage space.

It is interesting that the definition states the regional difference, because this scene is not set in Alaska, but still the way the word is defined inside the novel sounds more like #2:

Not long ago, the only dining lodge on a river drive hadn’t been a lodge at all. There once was a traveling kitchen that had been permanently built onto a truck body, and an adjacent truck on which a modular dining hall could be taken down and reassembled […] Those curious shelters for sleeping and eating and storing equipment had not only been mounted on trucks, on wheels, or on crawler tracks, but they were often attached to rafts or boats.

Now, the novel goes on to talk about the word itself, and this obviously picked my curiosity:

The Indian dishwasher — she worked for the cook — had long ago told the cook’s young son that wanigan was from an Abenaki word, leading the boy to wonder if the dishwasher herself was from the Abenaki tribe. Perhaps she just happened to know the origin of the word, or she’d merely claimed to know it. (The cook’s son went to school with an Indian boy who’d told him that wanigan was of Algonquian origin.)

So what has the dictionary to say about this? Apparently the Indian boy was correct, but the Abenaki also spoke Algonquian, so… I’m afraid I know too little about Native American tribes and languages to comment:

Regional Note: Wanigan is apparently borrowed from Ojibwa waanikaan, “storage pit,” from the verb waanikkee-, “to dig a hole in the ground.” Nineteenth-century citations in the Oxford English Dictionary indicate that the word was then associated chiefly with the speech of Maine. It denoted a storage chest containing small supplies for a lumber camp, a boat outfitted to carry such supplies, or, as in Algonquian, the camp equipment and provisions. In Alaska, on the western edge of the vast territory inhabited by Algonquian-speaking tribes, the same word was borrowed into English to indicate a little temporary hut, usually built on a log raft to be towed to wherever men were working.


Your mom was still dancing around them, doing her pretty little do-si-dos.

According to Wikipedia, do-si-do is an alternate spelling of dosado, and here’s from their definition:

A dosado is a basic dance step in such dances as square dance, contra dance, polka, various historical dances, and some reels. It is a circular movement where two people, who are initially facing each other, walk around each other without or almost without turning, i.e., facing in the same direction (same wall) all the time. In most cases it takes 6-8 counts to complete. The term is a corruption of the original French term dos-à-dos for the dance move, which means “back to back”, as opposed to “vis-à-vis” which means “face to face”.

The novel says as much:

Danny knew that a do-si-do was a square-dance figure. […] Jane had demonstrated a do-si-do for Danny; with her arms folded on her enormous bosom, she passed by his right shoulder, circling him back-to-back.

Still confused? I was, so I looked for videos, and found this one that shows the dosido, together with other figures:


And while looking for videos, I came across this page, which does not really help with the definition, but which I want to share because it’s genius and I love new ideas for explaining science: how to use square dance to explain symmetry. (On a side note, the Carleton College page links to a site called The Dance of Mathematics, where I just read that this concept was presented here in Coimbra last year. Shame that I missed it!)