”Some parents think that making their daughters come home earlier keeps them safe from danger, when the most important thing is that they don’t come home alone.”
It’s been ages since I have picked up a book as gripping as Dolores Redondo’s The Invisible Guardian. It was mind-numbingly good, for me. Part of the Baztan Trilogy, I read all three books at breakneck speed, and with such intensity that I managed to strain my eyes and give myself a headache last night. But now that I have completed the entire lot, I can process this wonderful story in its entirety, and once am done with my ritual of jotting down my thoughts and feelings on the book/s, I can finally move on.
I first came across the film adaptation of The Invisible Guardian on Netflix. The first and second books have been adapted into film and are available online. Since there is no sign of the third film being released anytime soon, I started on the books. I had to know the fate of the characters, how the story progressed, and what evils lay within the valley.
First, I believe, it is important to understand the setting. Imagine a misty haze settling over a verdant valley with the rain pelting the earth. The Baztan River gurgles nearby making its way through the dense forest that seems to be equal parts ethereal and sinister. The many shades of green and other earthy hues instantly fill my senses. The river, also known as the Bidasoa river, cuts through the town of Elizondo in the Basque region of Navarre, in northern Spain. This picturesque town, along with the adjoining valley, is the stage for an obsessive ritualistic killer, who preys on young teenage girls.
The deeds of a serial killer spread shockwaves through the region where everyone knows everyone, at least by face. Young women on the brink of adulthood are strangled to death, their pristine pale bodies marked with a garish wound to their necks, then their clothes are cut down the middle exposing their still-childlike bodies, their pubic area shaved and a local pastry txantxigorri placed atop it. Creepy, right The txantxigorri is a local pastry made with flour, lard and sugar, and it usually is circular shape, much like a huge cookie. It feels like a weird, purification rite as if to turn these young women back to being kids, stripping them of their sexuality with the cake being a symbol of their childhood.
With the prospect of a serial killer on the loose deeply unsettling, Inspector Amaia Salazar from nearby Pamplona is sent to lead the investigation in Elizondo. Salazar, who has been trained at Quantico, heads to her hometown to face the evil, both past and present. There she joins her aunt and her sisters, who take care of the bakery their father owned.
Salazar is a no-nonsense person, married to artist James. Along with the challenges she faces when it comes to the investigation, especially colleagues who find it difficult to recognise her authority, Salazar must also navigate her life in Elizondo, her personal issues as well as those of her family. While Salazar may come across as an all-work and no-play kind of a person, she has a softer, maternal side to her that comes out through the course of the book. Amaia yearns to be a mother, but somehow she’s unable to conceive. And even though she’s a practical and a logical person, who believes in facts and not fiction, moreso since she is an investigator, she is drawn towards the region’s folklores. She is also plagued by a dark past, most of which takes its time to be revealed to the reader. I wish I could say more, but I shall behave. As a reader, I felt like I was following her on the case as she manoeuvres her way through people from her past. I consumed every detail of the place and its mysterious vibe, soaking in the culture and its quirks.
This is not your regular, run-on-the-mill murder mystery, but a macabre tale which also involves the supernatural, the mythological, along with religion and the divinity. When I first saw the movie, the reference to a basajaun, a mythological beast akin to Big Foot that resides in the forest, seemed, to be honest, quite cheesy to me. But when I actually read the book, I realised how the Basque region of Spain has its own set of mythology and folk tales, and a rich history. The book helped me to better appreciate the folklores connected with the basajaun, and that it is more than just a furry hominid that maintains the balance and harmony of the forest.
The story is really enmeshed in this region of Spain. It lets me live, breathe and imagine myself in this part of the world, surrounded by dense forest and mostly a cold and wet clime, giving me the feeling like I’m cut off from the world.
One of the characters I really liked was Amaia’s aunt, Aunt Engrasi. She’s absolutely warm and inviting, someone who also has a clairvoyant element to her persona. She dwells on tarot cards and has even taught her nieces. Her home has a warm appeal to it with a golden glow, fire crackling, and the television always on giving a sense of comfort, while her friends are over in the evening often laughing over a game of cards.
Amaia’s family bakery, Mantecadas Salazar features prominently in the story, not to mention Amaia’s memories that are entwined with it. The bakery is one of the oldest confectionery and patisserie companies in the region with generations of Salazars having run it. The eldest sister, Flora, had taken it over from their parents. The second, Rosaura too worked in the bakery. It must be a dream to have a bakery in the family, where one can walk in any time of day, breathe in the buttery aroma or snack on some pastries. But most important would be to have a life with freshly baked bread, warm to touch.
Amaia’s time in this place brings back strong memories, as well as the nightmares that she would have. Her difficult relationship with her mother is an understatement, and that is seen continuing in a way with her elder sister Flora. While watching the film, I must say I was drawn to the stronger portrayal of Flora by Elvira Mínguez than by the book. She really brought out the character well.
I absolutely loved this book. It did not disappoint me at all. It would, of course, have been better had I read the book before I saw the movie, but it did not bother me much. It’s definitely a book I think I may re-read later sometime. The entire trilogy, in fact. If you pick this up, let me know what you think of it. I’ll be able to talk about the spoilers more freely then.