It was a whim that brought me to Lucia Graves' memoir "A Woman Unknown: Voices from a Spanish Life." I had just finished reading Carlos Ruiz Zafón's "The Shadow of the Wind," and was thoroughly entranced by its soaring lyrical prose. I noticed that the book was translated into English from Spanish and wondered whether the high quality of the prose might owe a great deal to the translator. So, I started investigating Lucia Graves' writings and discovered this exquisite memoir.
I rarely read autobiographies, but once I stared this work, I couldn't put it down--within a few pages, I felt like a spell had been cast. Soon, I was deep into a serene meditation on life--uncommon and fascinating for its vibrant Spanish twist, and subtle feminist slant. Finding this book was like suddenly discovering a refreshing mountain spring after a long summer hike: I had no idea how thirsty I was for a lush literary work dealing with the inner lives of women.
Naturally, most of the work deals with the life of the author, Lucia Graves. She is the daughter of Robert Graves, the famous English poet, novelist, biographer, essayist, scholar, and translator. She was raised on the island of Majorca, a place with a distinct cultural subset from the mainland Catalonian culture of northeastern Spain. She spoke English at home, Majorcan to the village people, and Castilian Spanish in school. Her father taught her a deep abiding love for words and language. There were dictionaries in every room of her childhood home so that the precise word might be found and discussed at any time. Later, as an adult raising her own family in a sterile modern Barcelona suburb, translation became the author's tranquil refuge from the everyday vicissitudes of life.
The book has four distinct themes. First and most importantly, we learn about the interior life and thoughts of Lucia Graves. It is important to note that there is little in this book about the life of her famous father, or the lives of her mother, siblings, children, and husband. The focus of this memoir is personal and inward at all times. Second, we learn about the lives of women who have played important roles in the author's life. She tells us about their strengths--the characteristics that allowed them to make the most of whatever adversity that befell them. Like her own life, she takes the lives of these everyday women and celebrates them. Third, we learn about the author's passion for words and for the painstaking art of translation. Finally, through the stories of the many women that make up the bulk of this book, we learn about the history of modern Spain, from the Civil War to the present day. In particular, we learn about the dynamic culture and people of Majorca and Catalonia.
There is the story of Jimena, Graves' cleaning women when she was a child growing up on Majorca; the story of Blanca, the island's midwife; and Juanita, her cleaning woman a dozen years later when she was a mother raising a family in Barcelona. Graves tells us about Olga, her childhood ballet instructor--a woman who had once achieved prima ballerina status in a major Russian ballet company, but eventually had to settle for a life of ballet instruction in a small Majorcan village. There's the story of Sister Valentina, one of the Catholic nuns who was Graves' teacher and mentor. Graves also delights us with the stories of courageous women from history: Marie Powell, long-suffering wife of John Milton and heroine of a book by her father that she translates into Spanish; and Margarida de Prades, the little-known and nearly forgotten 16th-century Queen of Catalonia. Graves also manages magically to weave into her contemporary life's story, the tale of the Greek goddess Persephone, Queen of the Underworld.
Like bookends holding the work together at the beginning and end, Graves gives us the story of her aging mother as she undergoes a minor operation in Barcelona. Once again, Graves takes this event as an opportunity to celebrate the many lives of the everyday women who were a part of this congenial, gracious, and loving hospital experience.
The Spanish legal term for a divorced woman translates as a "woman unknown." In the early 1990s, Graves became the "Woman Unknown" of the book's title when she and her husband of 26 years agreed to end their marriage. The subtitle, "Voices from a Spanish Life," aptly describe the many stories the author relates about vital Spanish women--unknown women whose lives she honors and memorializes.
This is a remarkable and richly nuanced work of literary prose. I recommend it highly, particularly to women, feminists, and others who may enjoy connecting with the inner dialogue of an astonishing, articulate, and uncommon woman of uncelebrated wisdom.