Like his earlier books A Heart So White and The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s fourteenth novel centres on marriage, mental cruelty and sexual transgression. It is set in Madrid in around 1980, in the midst of Spain’s post-Franco transition to democracy. Juan, its narrator, works as an assistant to Eduardo Muriel, a famous film director who belongs to a different time (as his John Ford-style eye patch symbolises) and now struggles to raise money for his projects.
Muriel likes to play the role of donnish father figure and much of the novel consists of Juan listening to his long, theatrical speeches. But these encounters are closer to therapy sessions than tutorials. Juan, who continually glosses the older man’s words critically as he relays them, regards him as an enigma to be solved or interpreted rather than as a source of wisdom.
What particularly puzzles him is his boss’s treatment of his wife, Beatriz, a statuesque beauty whom Muriel bars from his separate bedroom and mercilessly decries as fat, punishing her still for a single mysterious lapse or lie that occurred long ago. (The novel’s title is borrowed from a line in