The gold standard

The Goldsmith’s Secret
Elia Barceló (translated by David Frye)
MacLehose Press; £10.00
Review: Billy O’Callaghan

I DEVOURED The Goldsmith’s Secret in a sitting, two-and-a-half hours of pure joy.

The story starts off simply, with the tale’s teller, the goldsmith of the title, on a snowy night in New York city just before the turn of the new millennium, recollecting the great lost love of his life and dwelling on the mistakes that young men sometimes make, mistakes which haunt them worse than ghosts.

As a teenager, he’d embarked on a torrid affair with an older woman, Celia, one of his mother’s closest friends. She had known another love, many years before, a stranger who had dallied a while in passing through town. Then he’d vanished, abruptly and without warning, leaving her on the verge of the altar, broken-hearted and torn apart. The affair Celia fell into with our young narrator was sudden and unexpected. Something about him bewitched her, and they were irresistible to one another. But like a fool, misreading the situation and allowing his jealousies to fester, our hero bolted, fled the scene. He ran, learned his trade, shacked up in New York and yearned away his adult years crafting little golden delicacies and tossing around thoughts of what might have been.

Time then to go back, drawn by curiosity and by need, an aching to see Celia again, all these decades on, to speak with her, to explain. Maybe put things to rights or put them once and for all to bed. But the train arrives late at Villasanta de la Reina, in darkness, and the whole small world of that town feels askew, too eerie in its familiarity, its lack of change, unnatural after a lifetime of remove.

From here, the strangeness builds with great subtlety, insinuating itself into what’s real, like filaments of coloured thread in a bland garment. Somehow, time has turned directionless, and magic happens. 1952 has become a kind of flipside of 1999. Wedged between parallel existences, he meets Celia, the young and breathlessly beautiful version of Celia, and they fall hard and helplessly for one another, courting, loving, even planning marriage.

Yes, it is a love story, but thankfully it is far more than merely that. Miss Barceló is renowned in the Spanish world for her perceptive and imaginative science fiction. She is also a marvellously clever narrator, adept at navigating the most convoluted of plot courses, and she writes succulent and lyrical prose.

In The Goldsmith’s Secret, the second of her works translated in English, she offers a book that straddles genres and defies them. Romantic, speculative, literary and populist, it is, in the final analysis, a captivating story well told and well worth telling. What she achieves here, over so brief a span of pages, is nothing less than stunning.


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