Masterful storyteller Ruta Sepetys broke my heart with her last historical novel, “Salt to the Sea” and captured my attention to her as an author with “Between Shades of Gray.” Now comes her newest: “The Fountains of Silence.” It is gripping, vivid and extraordinary. The characters are all portraits of love, silence and secrets under the Spanish dictatorship they’ve been forced to live under.
It is Madrid, Spain, 1957. The country of Spain is under the fascist dictatorship of General Francisco Franco. Spain is hiding a dark secret here, and its residents know to keep that secret with their lives — or lose them or those of the ones they love.
Meanwhile, tourists and businessmen from all across the world flood into Spain to bask in the welcoming sunshine and partake in the culture, food and wine. Among them is 18-year-old Daniel Matheson, the son of an oil tycoon. An artist, Texas boy Daniel arrives in Madrid with his parents, hoping to connect with his mother’s birth country through the lens of his camera and his photography. He’s not a typical oil tycoon son nor a spoiled rich American boy dreamer — but rather a deep and thoughtful artist, anxious to break out of the realms of society he’s lived in for so long in America. He’s fluent in Spanish and never quite fit into the elite society of his father in the Lone Star State.
Daniel’s father has been grooming Daniel for the oil business and does not want him to apply for journalism school — where Daniel wants to report on real world issues, and show them through the lens of his cameras. Yet, he just can’t stop following his heart and true calling, during the family vacation in Spain.
Between his love of photographing, journalism and fate, Daniel meets Ana. She is a native of Spain, and has a family with thick, weaving obstacles that slowly uncover the lingering grasp of the Spanish Civil War and all the struggles it has left to its residents in Madrid. It isn’t just working hard for essentially no money. It is also lack of fortune and genuine fear. Ana works as a maid at the Hotel Hilton, where Daniel is staying with his family. Ana’s father was killed and her mother imprisoned for their part in the resistance against Franco. It is a shadow that remains over Ana and her family. She needs the hotel job to support her siblings and niece — most of all, she needs to keep her head down and out of trouble. She fears what will happen if she does not.
Daniel’s photographs lack that fear — yet they leave him with uncomfortable questions as he runs into shadows of danger and warnings from the friends he meets there, including Ana, who quickly captures his heart. A dark side of the sunny Spanish city is revealed as observant Daniel continues his photography about town. And quickly, Daniel is backed into a corner where he must make difficult decisions to protect those he loves. Lives and hearts collide. Silence is the only hope of maintaining safety for oneself and family in Madrid, it is found — in a country governed by deep fear.
In “The Fountains of Silence,” the beauty and loss of Madrid and Spain is seen through Sepetys’ well-drawn, heart-rendering characters. It is a carefully curated story, and with each photo Daniel takes and each action we see Ana and her family take, the full story of the secrets of Madrid begin to take shape, and pull heart strings.
Once again, one of my favorite authors, Sepetys, creates another shining light into a dark past that hasn’t been talked about as much as some others. This is a heart-wrenching novel, so colorful and fearless and epic and lovely — even as it examines the secrets, the darkness and repercussions of war.
The novel further includes vintage media reports, oral history commentary, photos and more that explain what was happening during Daniel and Ana’s time in Madrid. This gripping work of historical fiction relays the power of speaking the truth, taking on future rulers to avoid repeating the past and conveying just one of the many stories of staggering loss, love and national collapse.
“Focus your lens on the Spanish people,” Ben lifts his cigarette and points it at Daniel, “but don’t be stupid. There is a dark side here. Sure, they’re selling sunshine and castanets to the tourists. But that’s not all Franco’s selling. One wrong move and the police will be on you. You’ll be dead in a dirt pit.”