This is a review of the novel The Scent of Lemon Leaves, by Clara Sanchez, a fascinating story of when the present and the past collide.
The story tells the tale of two protagonists – Julian, an octogenarian former concentration camp inmate who has made it his life’s work to hunt down former Nazis to make them pay for their war crimes; and Sandra, a thirty year old woman who finds herself pregnant to a man she doesn’t love, and escapes to the Spanish coast to try to work out what she wants to do with her life. Their paths cross when Sandra meets an elderly Norwegian couple on the beach and strikes up a friendship with them, letting them adopt her (not literally) as a quasi-grandchild, only to discover that Julian is investigating them for their past sins.
I found it a difficult novel to get into, to be honest. I had high expectations from the blurb but the opening chapters didn’t really connect with me. After a while, though, I was hooked to the point that I didn’t want to put the book down. The two points of view have a fascinating juxtaposition, with Sanchez successfully going from the mind of an eighty year old man to a thirty year old woman without skipping a beat. Sometimes, particularly in descriptive sections, the voices were not very different, but then a reaction to something or an offhand comment would remind me forcefully that these were very different people.
Admittedly, some of Sandra’s decisions baffled me, as I would have done something totally different in her shoes. Then again, she and I are of very different character and, importantly, she remained in that character for the duration of the book. The other thing that I occasionally had trouble with was the fact that I am unfamiliar with Spanish customs, and therefore finding offices and shopping centres routinely open at eight in the evening had me scratching my head, until I remembered that in Spain it’s customary to have a siesta in the middle (and hottest part) of the day, and conduct business when it cools down later on. It’s a little thing, but it was just something I had to continually remind myself of so that some of the times used in the story made sense to me.
I don’t want to give the plot away, but I just wanted to mention a few things that really stood out for me. One was the fear Sandra had for the tenant in her sister’s house not far from where the Norwegians, Karin and Frederik, lived, after Karin saw him treat Sandra with disrespect. Another was the respective fates of Elfe, Bolita and Heim; yet another was the revelation at the very end by Elisabeth, also known as the girl on the beach. Finally, the explanation as to why Sandra’s pregnancy was relevant, which I had wondered about – why make her pregnant? What did it add to the story?Each of these revelations was a twist I hadn’t seen coming.
Congratulations must go to Julie Wark, who translated the book from Spanish into English. I have a feeling that a novel like this would have given a translator a few challenges but, unlike some translated books I have read, it flowed like it had been written in English.
All in all, The Scent of Lemon Leaves is a fascinating, intriguing and addictive book, showing the very human side of people the world sees as monsters and how they are, in many ways, just like everyone else. It asks whether it is worth chasing and prosecuting people for war crimes committed sixty or seventy years ago, or whether we should just let nature take its course as it does with everyone. And it shows how seemingly innocuous decisions and events can have repercussions that change your life. It makes you think and it infiltrates your dreams, and I thoroughly recommend it.