Reading Víctor Del Árbol’s compelling novel, Above the Rain, is like taking a long, complicated journey where we are constantly searching for clues about our final destination. We may not have visited Barcelona, Sevilla, Tangier, Tarifa, or Malmo, Sweden, but we can relate to the challenges this disparate group of people face in their lives. How they connect is not readily apparent, creating a mystery that needs to be solved. There is suffering, violence, and death, but there is also love, understanding, forgiveness, and justice.
We begin in Tangier in July, 1955. Thelma, an artist, is despondent. Her husband, Enrique has left, leaving her with their daughter, Helena. Fortified with an ample amount of gin, Thelma wakes Helena and tells her they are going to the beach. It’s the middle of the night and Helena is frightened. But Thelma is insistent. On Merkala Beach, Thelma pulls Helena, who can’t swim, into deeper water. “Rather than help her stay afloat, Thelma grabbed her daughter’s shoulders and pushed down, submerging her.” Helena finally breaks free and saves herself. Her mother keeps swimming and never looks back.
Helena goes to live with her grandparents in London and has a sexual relationship with one of her classmates, Louise. Decades pass. Helena’s husband is dead, and she’s estranged from her son, David. Living in a home for seniors, Helena merely tolerates the other residents, but she forms an unexpected friendship with Miguel, a former accountant who has received a diagnosis of dementia. The two have more in common than they first realize. Like Helena, Miguel was married, but remains obsessed with a love from the past, a woman, Carmen, who wrote him passionate letters. And like Helena, Miguel has unresolved issues with his daughter, Natalia. The two come up with a plan to leave the home and travel together – Helena to visit her son in Malmo, and Miguel to find Carmen in Barcelona.
Before they can leave, however, Miguel is determined to help his daughter, even though she resents his interference. Natalia was a brilliant student and is well regarded in her profession as a book editor. But she has always suffered from a lack of self esteem, making her the perfect target for Gustavo, a macho brute who abuses her both verbally and physically. Now that Natalia is pregnant, Miguel worries about his grandchild. He hires a thug, Ivan, to beat up Gustavo and warn him never to come near Natalia again. That action will have unforeseen consequences, harming someone Miguel also loves.
In Malmo, we meet Yasmine, a beautiful young Moroccan woman who is forced to pay off her grandfather’s debt by working as a prostitute for a crime boss, Sture. She becomes a mistress to Govan, a government official, feeding information back to Sture. While she’s only doing her duty to help her family, her mother, Fatima, doesn’t speak to her, and her grandfather, Abdul, is abusive, calling her a whore.
At times, it may seem like we are reading two different novels, but the author skillfully weaves together the stories without disrupting the narrative. Everyone in Above the Rain has secrets and as they are revealed the final puzzle pieces fall into place.
This is a journey well worth taking. A beautiful, riveting read.
Above the Rain
Víctor Del Árbol
Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman
Top Bigstock photo: Malmo, Sweden