Elena Medel’s first novel Wonders originally published in Spanish in fall 2020.
Based primarily in Madrid, covering much of the Spanish city, the novel also spends time in Cordoba. Both places have meaning for Medel, who grew up in the first and lives in the second today.
Now the novel has been translated into 15 languages and has been published in the US by Algonquin Books and in the UK by Pushkin Press.
Wonders was translated by Lizzie Davis, with Thomas Bunstead also doing translation work for the novel.
Davis previously worked with Medel in the translation of his collection of poetry, my first bikini. Davis is a translator and editor for Coffee House Press.
“I had the great good fortune to translate Elena’s collection of poetry, my first bikini, in 2015, and fell in love with her work; got to meet her in person and also fell in love with her as a person,” Davis said.
medel wrote: my first bikini when she was 16, and opened her publishing house, La Bella Varsovia, at 19.
Her first novel, Wondersexplores themes of family, class, desire, gender and femininity through intergenerational storytelling.
Following two protagonists, María and Alicia, the novel focuses on a grandmother and granddaughter who have never met, living in Madrid where they exist nearby.
The stories of María and Alicia take place over several decades, from around the early 1970s to the present day – 2018.
Regarding the story in the novel, memory and the concept of being on the “wrong side” of the story are taken into account:
“When we talk about history, big story in capital letters, we think about objectivity,” Medel said. “I wanted to write a novel based on history, the common history linked to ordinary people. In [The Wonders] we can rethink history.
The novel covers the last days of Francisco Franco’s regime, the financial crisis of 2008 and the political protests of the 2010s.
Throughout, the reader sees the two characters navigating between income, identity, and a sense of belonging.
Medel’s novel won the Francisco Umbral award for best book of the year. With this victory, she became the first woman to receive the award.
She is also the recipient of the XXVI Loewe Prize for Young Poets, the Princess of Girona Foundation Prize 2016 (in the Arts and Literature category) and the Harper’s Bazaar Spain Prize 2019.
His novel begins, in chronological order, with María, but it was Alicia that Medel wrote first. Alicia first appeared in an earlier, separate Medel story. Overall, the first chapter written was “Kingdom”.
The story of Les Merveilles begins in 1969 when María moved to Madrid for work, leaving behind her daughter, Carmen, in the care of her family members.
Intending to save money and later take care of Carmen herself without financial stress, María’s plan fails under the salary of a housekeeper and carer.
Medel’s novel explores money from many angles, including not having enough for yourself, not having enough to take care of those you love, and having so much that you becomes a bitter person.
María’s life is divided between work — which takes up most of her time — and local activism through a neighborhood association.
She seeks solitude in her political activism, but even in meetings with the neighborhood association, her thoughts and ideas are overshadowed or even stolen by the men in the group.
As María navigates her way through life in Madrid, Carmen grows away from her mother, forming a strong contempt and distance.
Soon, Carmen has her own children: Alicia and Eva. The girls grow up without a line of contact with their grandmother.
Reacting to the distance that her family put between her, María declines the photographs of her granddaughters whenever her brother, Chico, offers her some.
“She thinks if she sees the pictures and knows the faces of her grandchildren, the grandchild exists,” Medel said. “Lo que no se nombra no exists… if you don’t see that, it doesn’t exist.”
In reaction to the personal trauma, María rejects the possibility of finding a renewed sense of belonging.
His granddaughter Alicia grows bitter, going from a wealthy family to a struggling family on various levels after a great tragedy.
Reacting to her own trauma, Alicia often takes comfort in the difficulties of others to mask her own.
“She has an awareness of being cruel, of making fun of others, but people don’t know,” Medel said. “She’s mostly cruel to herself.”
Both Alicia and María were born in Cordoba and moved to Madrid as young adults. A strained relationship prevents the two from having a formal meeting, opening the doors to their intertwined history.
While María and Alicia find themselves in similar routines, their common bond, Carmen, is an outlier among many traits exchanged between María and her granddaughter.
A glaring example is Carmen’s willingness to lean financially on a man, a notable aspect of her activities that runs counter to María and Alicia’s vehement avoidance.
“[María and Alicia]Each other’s absences affect their lives,” Davis said. “Each generation, no matter how close…shows up in the generations that follow.”
The story concerns the struggles of working women afflicted by an unhealthy and negative work culture and financial insecurity, exploring how their character is affected by these factors.
Often approached in the same contexts, women are both suspicious of men – their lack of trust propelled by novel interactions seen through long-term relationships.
When considering the novel’s most important male characters—Chico and the protagonist’s love interests of Pedro and Nando—they are respected for looking after their families, while María is disavowed for doing the same.
“Motherhood is one of the centers of the novel,” Medel said. “When we talk about a woman who cares about her family, we think it’s natural, because we have to. If we’re talking about a man who cares about his family, we think it’s natural. is extraordinary, it’s like a hero.
Themes of protest remain present as the story focuses further on the 2018 Madrid Women’s March, where Alicia and María unknowingly meet.
In Wondersprotesting is described as someone for whom people need money: “It takes money even to protest,” remarks María.
The contrasts of the novel, juxtaposition between the two main characters, deepen with the different reflections of María and Alicia on the contestation.
In a break from their sameness, protesting is everything for María as Alicia unknowingly falls into the women’s march.
The contrast shows how María and Alicia differ by the end of the novel, María having found a sense of belonging while Alicia lives in solitude.
Their encounter at the protest also reflects the structure of Medel and a non-chronological history that comes full circle.
To further illustrate this, the first and last chapters—each of which introduce manifestation—are titled “Day” and “Night.”
“I wanted to circle from the first chapter to the last,” Medel said. “The shape of the city is very important. If you look for the places where Alicia and María work, all the places are in a circle… The places where Alicia and María live, they live outside the circle.
A year and a half after its Spanish release, Wonders can now be shared in 15 languages.
Medel’s novel is a wonderful read for Women’s History Month in March, and with this week’s International Women’s Day in mind.
Medel’s first novel was a long time coming. The seasoned poet has been writing novels for years, waiting to find the book she was looking for.
When it comes to the writing of others, Medel’s advice is to be a good critic for yourself:
“There’s something more important about writing than being in front of the computer,” Medel said. “That is, the moment you have the text…you have to reread the text, and rewrite the text, and say maybe, well, it doesn’t work.”
To gain an understanding of their own work, a writer may need to form a relationship with their work that invites self-criticism but strives for self-realization.
Through trial and error, Medel crafted his first novel with signature and admirable attention to detail.
Wonders is now available from Algonquin Books.