Summary: Emilia and Luzia dos Santos, sisters of humble origins, find their own ways to escape the drudgery of poor village life. Emilia marries well and moves to Recife to enjoy high society, Luzia is abducted by a gang of country bandits. Both sisters discover their capabilities and limitations in surroundings far from their shared past.
I enjoyed this enormously – the setting is very thoroughly evoked and does well to distract you from the rainy, grey London setting. It passed the "would rather be sleep-deprived than put this down" test with a score of about 200 pages! (before I finally had to turn the light out…)
The author does well to keep the perspectives of two sisters so separate; Luzia is set up as a villain but then is sympathetic, Emilia was a snob but her desire for fine cloth is tempered when she is disappointed in marriage. The connection between them is never really broken, they find ways to communicate through the newspapers, and they each come to appreciate the other's gifts in later life.
The Brazilian hinterlands are beautifully described – having a troupe of country bandits enables the author to compose odes to the untouched nature:
"After the rains, the caatinga bloomed. Orange flowers, their petals as thin and dry as paper, emerged from the quipa's prinkly rounds. The malva bushes grew as tall as men. Bromeliads released red blooms. Bees swarmed the scrub. When Luzia closed her eyes, their buzzine reminded her of rushing water."
She peppers the novel with untranslated Portuguese/Brazilian, explaining some and not some other, and on the whole, she gets it right. I had a few moments of "I wonder what that means", but mostly I just carried on – and the heavy flavouring just reinforces the exotic setting.
Both sisters are disappointed in their choice of life, but they both make the best of it and are well-respected in their chosen societies. The glamour and social rituals of Emilia's life in the city were beautiful to read; the idea of Old and New families who don't converse; areas of town once Old, now infiltrated by the New; and Emilia's involvement in the suffragette movement and in bringing new fashion to Recife.
Well worth the very heavy 646 pages!
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