Saturday, August 13, 2016

House of Ulloa, by Emilia Pardo Bazan

Staff review by Chris Saliba

If you're after a fun, fast-paced Gothic thriller, then look no further than Emilia Pardo Bazan's The House of Ulloa.

Every now and again a long forgotten or neglected novel comes to light. First published in 1886, The House of Ulloa is just such a novel. Written by Spanish novelist, journalist and critic  Emilia Pardo Bazan, the novel has received a new translation by Paul O’Prey and Lucia Graves. Considered a classic in her native Spain, English readers can now enjoy this pacey and often hilarious Gothic romp.

The rather soft and ineffectual young priest Julian Alvarez is sent to a crumbling country estate to put the house’s affairs in order. The head of the property, the marquis Don Pedro, is a dissolute, immoral man who does as he pleases. On his first day in the huge, eerie house, Julian sees all manner of horrors. The marquis beats the housemaid Sabel and takes delight in getting his illegitimate four-year-old boy, Perucho, drunk on wine. The young child, both urchin and cherub, gambols delightedly in his cups. Julian can’t believe his eyes. And that’s only the beginning. When the marquis decides to marry his cousin, sensitive and fair Nuncha, Julian finds himself inexorably dragged into the house’s unruly domestic politics.

There are further complications in the plot when the marquis decides to run for political office. Pardo Bazan does a wonderful job describing dodgy provincial politics and the power plays between self-interested parties. With the Catholic Church fully enmeshed in the political machinations, you can be sure to see several powerful priests throwing their weight around. There is one particularly funny scene where two priests, sitting on their horses, try to have a political discussion while a high wind blows all around them. They raise their voices higher and higher to combat the loud wind, the turbulent weather almost blowing them off their beasts, while setting out the complicated chess moves of the upcoming election.

Emilia Pardo Bazan has been likened to French novelist Emile Zola. Like Zola, Pardo Bazan has a well paced, naturalistic style. Her wild and crumbling Gothic house is full of atmosphere and rich in texture. Everything comes alive under her pen. The vast array of characters, from peasants to high priests, are vividly drawn. The dialogue is cracking and keeps the story moving at a thrilling pace. It reads as so strikingly modern, in its politics and its descriptions of sexuality, that it could have been written yesterday. The House of Ulloa has touches of Wuthering Heights, in its remote location and amoral characters. Pardo Bazan, however, brings more humour and irony to her story.

For the sheer fun of it, if for nothing else, readers should find themselves tempted by The House of Ulloa.

The House of Ulloa, by Emilia Pardo Bazan. Published by Penguin. ISBN: 9780241259160 RRP: $14.99

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