The Return by Dulce Maria Cardoso

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The Return by Dulce Maria Cardoso

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: An insight to the plight of Portuguese refugees from the Angolan war in the mid 1970s is a timely reminder of what it's like to be on that side of the fence, but a thin plot meant that it didn't really hold my attention.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 272 Date: July 2016
Publisher: MacLehose Press
ISBN: 978-0857054326

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I often claim to know most of my history from reading story books (a.k.a. novels). Sometimes, however, you need to know the history before you have a context in which to sit the story. Portugal is one of those countries about which I know quite literally nothing, and in 1975 I was about twelve years old – old enough to register that there was a war going on in somewhere called Angola, but back then, there were wars going on all over the place. Western European empires around the world were in their death throes. Some went more peacefully than others, albeit none of them trailing much glory in their wake.

By 1975 the Angolan war has been dragging on for years, but by now the rebels are winning and the Portuguese are fleeing back to the Motherland. For some this is a return home, but for many being called returnees is a misnomer. They were born in Angola or Malawi. The Motherland is nothing but a myth to them, a fiction spun by parents and grandparents.

Rui is one such. He is fifteen years old and living in Luanda. His neighbours and friends have slowly been deserting the only life he and his sister have ever known. His mother is mentally unstable. His father is insistent that they have a right to remain. They have always treated their workers right. Worked alongside them. What have they to fear, why should they need to go back to a country that never worked for them when they were there before.

Eventually they too realise that they must leave – but by then leaving isn't so easy any more – and just before they do, disaster strikes, and mother and children must travel alone.

The Returned depicts the day-to-day life of Luanda in the dark days of 1975, and of Portugal which from many perspectives wasn't faring much better. It shows what it was like for the returnees, forging quasi-communities in temporary accommodation, insisting on rights that even they weren't sure they had. It shows how life in a luxury hotel very quickly becomes more than slightly squalid. It gives us children in school subject to unthinking insults. In these 2016 days of mass migration, other peoples escaping other wars, it is a timely reminder of what it is like to be on the receiving end of a safe haven, a welcome that feels like anything but.

For me though, it was too much of a meander that didn't really lead anywhere. There is a narrow thread of a plot which just about holds it altogether, a missing father, a gay uncle, young loves and early sexual encounters, but it still felt like an extended vignette rather than a story. The author lived through something very similar to this and it is easy to wonder whether telling it as straight memoir might have worked better than trying to fictionalise it.

Perhaps it's because it is a book without a hero - or even an anti-hero - there is no tension, no investment in outcomes or characters. It is all just: this happened. Of that's also the point of it. This did happen. Even so, for me it proved to be a worthy book rather than an enjoyable one. A story that needed to be told, just a little bit more than it needs to be read. Look around. It's still happening.

If this book appeals then you might enjoy Equator by Miguel Sousa Tavares.

Buy The Return by Dulce Maria Cardoso at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Return by Dulce Maria Cardoso at

Buy The Return by Dulce Maria Cardoso at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Return by Dulce Maria Cardoso at


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