When you imagine a typical “war novel,” what do you think of? Most people would answer bloody battlefields and brother-against-brother dramatics, lack of supplies and bleak outlooks. However, The Wrong Blood is undeniably a novel that is centered around war, and yet these things are only minimally addressed. Instead, de Lope’s novel focuses on the impact of war on civilians—those not directly engaged in fighting, or (generally) in any of the more violent aspects of it, but affected nonetheless. Specifically, it focuses on two women, and how their lives were changed and intertwined through a course of events set in motion by the war.

One of these women is Isabel Cruces, an upper-class woman who marries Captain Julen Herráiz. Her husband is sent off to war, and she is widowed not long after. Her tragedy is directly connected to Maria Antonia Extarri, the daughter of a former inn keeper, who is abandoned as a teenager when her parents flee the war and their home. Maria is raped when soldiers take refuge at her family’s inn, and, through a series of events (both emotional and physical), she eventually ends up as a maid to Isabel. From the beginning, there is an acknowledgement of an odd bond between the two women, but no explanation as to why for the better part of the book. Manuel de Lope does manage to keep it in the front of the reader’s mind, however, referencing it off and on, clearly but without overdoing it, as in this passage:

However, anyone familiar with the two locales—that is, the Extarri inn at the crossroads and the Las Cruces villa in Hondarribia—could have told that one of the two had pervaded the other through the subtle introduction of symbols and emblems that assuredly were not limited to the buffalo head and the china chamber pot. Knowing eyes would have detected Maria Antonia’s influence in the house after the Senora’s death and the expropriation and destruction of the inn. Thus her universe now extended beyond the kitchen, where she spent so much of her time, and her room, which had always been the servant’s quarters.

The story of these two women is told in drips and drabbles, more in flashback and hints dropped by the crippled doctor who lives next door, probably the only one (or at the very least, one of the few living) who knows the secret that bonds Maria and Isabel. Thus the connections that are intricately laid can be difficult to trace unless you stop and focus on them. Perhaps this is a side effect of a few too many connections; perhaps it’s the simple fact that some of these connections were announced fairly early in the novel. Either way, by the end of the story it takes a moment to recall exactly why everything was connected.

However, even with the momentary confusion that happens once or twice, the good outweighs the bad. Manuel de Lope constructs a story about war that seems relatable, even though the (very large) majority of readers will never face a scenario like this. The emotions are true, and the setting rarely strays to a far-off battlefield, or really anywhere too difficult for an average reader to imagine. The storyline might be a little far-fetched, a little too coincidental to be believable, but on the whole the novel stays true to itself, and keeps you engaged. The Wrong Blood is definitely worth the time and attention it requires.

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The Wrong Blood
By Manuel de Lope
Translated by John Cullen
Reviewed by Erika Howard
304 pages, Paperback
ISBN: 9781590513095
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