Books Burn Badly by Manuel Rivas

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Books Burn Badly by Manuel Rivas

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Robert James
Reviewed by Robert James
Summary: Spanish Civil War epic is hard to get into and the characters blend together at times; however, you can’t doubt the beauty of Rivas’ exceptional writing for a second.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 592 Date: February 2011
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099520337

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I normally start with a brief summary of the novel I’m reviewing, but Rivas’ sprawling epic is close to impossible to do anything ‘brief’ with. While it starts in 1881, it’s the book-burning witnessed by Hercules the boxer during the Spanish Civil War in 1936 which gives this novel its title and it floats through several other eras, eventually finishing more than a century after it started. Along the way, we meet a young washerwoman who sees souls in the river, Olinda the matchgirl, Gabriel the stammerer, and the Judge of Oklahoma, star of a series of Western novels Gabriel’s father reads.

If you’re valuing a novel by the amount of time it takes to read, Rivas’ five hundred plus densely packed pages come in very close to the top of the class here. Of course, most of us would pick quality over quantity when it comes to prose. Looking at that quality, in many ways this is still a book to be savoured, with some breathtaking writing at times – full marks to Jonathan Dunne for doing such a great job of translating from the Galician. That said, it’s overwhelming at times because of the length and the sheer number of characters, several of whom I was struggling slightly to keep up with. I also found it slow to get going, personally, which dampened my enjoyment a tiny bit. Eventually, though, the stories come together, the quality of the prose stays consistently high, and it’s worth being patient sorting through the cast of the novel as you wait for Rivas to tie everything together with a beautiful ending.

Definitely a recommendation for fans of literary fiction who have a significant amount of time to spare – this is one to commit to for the long haul though, so please try to make sure you stick with it through that leisurely opening part!

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: For another epic spanning a century or so, I absolutely adored We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen and would highly recommend it to everyone. You might also enjoy All Is Silence by Manuel Rivas.

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