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Espido Freire: Irlanda (Irlanda)

At the start of the novel, Sagrario dies after a long illness. She is the middle of three young sisters. Natalia is the eldest and it is she that narrates this novel. Her youngest sister is normally just referred to as the little one. Indeed, we never learn her name. Despite the fact that Sagrario had been ill for some time, it is still a devastating shock for all four of them, the two girls and their parents. Their mother cannot get over it. The youngest draws pictures of Sagrario in her coffin and Natalia has nightmares about a tortoise attacking her and collects pressed flowers from Sagrario’s funeral. Their mother’s sister is continually in touch with the mother, despite the fact that she did not come to the funeral, and eventually invites Natalia to come and stay with her cousins during the summer holidays. Natalia has not seen Roberto and Irlanda for three years and is very impressed when she arrives at their lovely house in the country.

The house had been the family home of the mother and aunt but, when the parents died, the aunt and her husband bought out the mother’s share of the inheritance. We needed the money, was the mother’s rationale. Initially, it seems, Natalia has happy memories of staying there but we gradually learn that she was not always happy. This time she is enchanted by Irlanda. Irlanda is only three months older than her but seems much more nature. In particular, she is much more attractive, elegant and self-assured. The children stay in a separate house on the property, with the parents having some but not too much contact. As well as Irlanda and Roberto (who is a bit older), there are two of Irlanda’s friends from school and Roberto’s friend Gabriel. The school the girls go to is clearly for well-off children. Irlanda appears to be popular at the school and her friends and the girls at the school seem to have the preoccupation of many girls of that age, namely clothes and boys. The three girls share a room. There is no room for Irlanda, who has a separate room, which somewhat disappoints her. Irlanda, we soon discover, is something of a loner. At home, she had spent her time with Sagrario at school and when Sagrario no longer went to school, she looked after her younger sister. She seems to have had no friends other than her sisters.

It soon becomes apparent that Natalia is not going to fit in here. The other three girls are friends and have very different ways from Natalia, who has had no contact with boys, limited interest in fashion and, indeed, limited social contact with anyone outside her family. Natalia has a herbarium, a collection of pressed plants. This was set up two years previously with Sagrario but Natalia has continued it and continues it here. Irlanda will later mock her for only being interested in stupid plants. But Natalia, unknown to the others, has two other interests. Firstly, for her, Sagrario remains her best friend and is very much alive. She talks to her all the time and receives a response. Indeed, when she is not talking to Sagrario, Sagrario asks her if she is asleep. Secondly, Natalia lives in a fairy-tale world. She sees everything in fairy-tale terms. For example, when Irlanda tries to teach her chess, she cannot grasp the moves and the strategy of the game but rather sees the whole board as a fairy tale involving queens and kings and knights. She often goes off on her own and imagines fairy-tale stories and settings, magical places and evil doings.

The three girls do make something of an effort to bring Natalia into their group and it works partially for a while but then the girls have to leave to back to their families. Natalia is looking forward to being alone with Irlanda but, to Natalia’s surprise, Irlanda refuses to let her share her bedroom. Natalia also makes some contact with Gabriel who has not had an easy life – his father killed himself when Gabriel was even – but, of course, Natalia has no idea how to deal with boys and, to Natalia’s horror, Gabriel soon turns his attentions to the more vivacious, more experienced and more attractive Irlanda. More and more Natalia remains on her own, plotting her revenge against Irlanda for taking Gabriel and thinking of herself as the princess in the tower.

Freire tells an excellent story of a girl who cannot fit in. The personal tragedy of her sister, the fact that they are the poor relations and her lack of friends and social skills all drive Natalia into her fairy-tale world, a world inhabited by her dead sister but also by princesses and dragons, mysterious spirits and knights in armour. However, as Freire shows us, fairy tales can have happy endings but they can also have unhappy endings.

Publishing history

First published in 1998 by Planeta
First English translation in 2011 by Fairy Tale Review Press
Translated by Toshiya Kamei