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Elena Medel’s debut novel, The Wonders, is a masterclass in how a novelist can illuminate the connections between generations through memory and stories. The novel’s semi-omniscient narrator follows the perspectives of a grandmother and granddaughter, María and Alicia, as they try to live and understand their places in the world. The beautifully written complexities and nuances of these characters make it hard to stop reading. While the two grew up in different circumstances and have never met, their lives and their stories parallel one another in a variety of ways. They share a deep intimacy because of their unshakable generational bond, one that Alicia wonders about when she asks, “What if genes determine your character, not just your eye colour or the shape of your mouth?” The two relatives are connected, not only by their features but by their interiorities. Through exceptionally clever writing, Medel shows time and time again how the two relatives are the same in some ways, while strikingly different in others. Both are caught up in the world of memories, dreams, and fictions as they struggle to determine what the world owes them and what they owe the world in return; as Medel repeats throughout the story, we must always repay our debts in the end.
Within The Wonders, Medel explores the fine line between truth and the stories we tell and remember. María says that “memory generates its own fictions,” while Alicia similarly thinks she “fill[s] in this story” with what others tell her. Alicia adds other people’s stories to her own when memory falters. The truth doesn’t always matter; what matters is what people say, what they remember, and what they believe. Illustrating this point, the narrator often offers two or more versions of the same story, only sometimes revealing which is true. The blurred line between fiction and reality allows Medel to explore the intricacies of human nature and our relationship with the truth. As María and Alicia grow older and their youthful dreams give way to harsh reality, they move to the stories of their past, revise them until they feel comfortable, and live there. The book presents a choice between “pretence or truth” and asks what’s more important – honesty or peace? Is it possible to have both simultaneously? In her depiction of the battle between truth and fiction, Medel’s ability to write believable people shines.
In a similar vein, the book concerns itself with what we see, and what we don’t. The idea that “if we can’t see something, it doesn’t exist” is a prominent theme throughout the novel. However, sight is not defined literally; it refers to what our minds process. Sometimes, for Alicia and María, it’s easier to see dreams and memories than what’s in front of their eyes, whilst at others, their dreams appear harsher than what they experience in waking life. This again blurs the line between reality and fiction, between “pretence” and “truth.” Alicia finds herself saying “but the reality is…,” as she tries to reconcile what she wants to remember with what actually happened. Perhaps the only real ‘truth’ is that Alicia and María are always dreaming, even when they don’t want to be.
As the novel progresses, we can piece together the fragments of Alicia and María’s lives. Medel employs a non-linear narrative structure, which allows the book to read as an amalgamation of memories. We only gain access to the parts of their stories that the narrator, María, and Alicia choose to tell us. In this way, The Wonders beautifully mirrors reality. Life is a collection of stories, and each of us gets to decide when and to whom we tell them. By the novel’s close, all of Alicia and María’s stories, all of the fragments, fit together to construct a beautiful narrative.
Medel excels in her use of narrative structure and language throughout the story. At times, she uses a stream of consciousness style to reflect the frenzied desire of the characters to share their stories. Sentences tumble over one another in their rush to get out. A difficult technique to execute well, Medel makes it look easy. Further, Alicia and María conduct literary analyses of their own, as they try to determine what makes a story good and what makes it real. Medel’s characters refer to her own literary techniques through their interrogation of stories. At one point, in a conversation on metaphors and riddles, Alicia says, “you allude to something, you explain it without stating it outright.” This line from Alicia aptly describes one of Medel’s primary strengths: she takes us to the brink of understanding but doesn’t spoon feed her meaning. Instead, she lets the allusions fester until the meaning dawns on the reader who can then congratulate themself on seeing what the author brought them. Medel gives you just the right amount – no more, no less.
At its core, The Wonders is a novel about family and memory. Elena Medel displays a fundamental understanding of people that makes it easy to care deeply about these characters and their stories. This is not a book anyone should miss.
by Elena Medel
Translated by Lizzie Davis and Thomas Bunstead
Pushkin Press, 224 pages