Julia Navarro’s You Shall Not Kill has a strong historical flavor considering how she sets her story around the end of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. It is a novel with violence always percolating beneath its surface, gnawing along its edges, and bursting out in occasional flashes that change the trajectories of its character’s lives. Navarro has a growing bibliography to her credit and her interest in human stories placed in the context of historical moments makes her unique among modern writers.
You Shall Not Kill is a long read, close to one thousand pages, and covers multiple years. The main and secondary characters alike walk the chaotic streets of cities stretching from London, England to Alexandria, Egypt and other points between. Navarro manages a large cast of characters while still focusing the majority of her attention on two primary figures, Fernando and Catalina, and their complicated relationship with one another as it evolves through one of the most challenging periods in humanity’s history. It is to her immense credit as an author that Navarro manages, even with characters of tangential importance to the narrative, to bring many to life for readers with only a few brushstrokes.
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The characterizations do have some issues. Navarro does have her moments when she relies a little too much on clichéd character archetypes; for instance, Fernando, haunted by indignities history visits upon his family, particularly his father, and essentially noble though hot tempered, especially regarding his his feelings for childhood friend and lifelong love Catalina. Catalina herself, strong, passionate, though essentially a tender-hearted dreamer as well. Marvin, the tortured American ex-pat and would be poet.
She makes inconsistent use of setting and historical context. There are ample instances during the book of Navarro seizing the opportunity to flesh out the Madrid, Alexandria, and Lisbon of the near-mid 20th century, gripped by the chaos of war and social upheaval, but she likewise glosses over chances to imbue these locales with distinct flavor. The dramatic opportunities for juxtaposing the characters against historical events of their day is, arguably, best explored in relationship to how the Spanish Civil War has affected the lives of many important characters, but she squanders other similar chances.
Navarro, despite the extended nature of this book, keeps things moving at an admirable clip and rarely sinks into melodrama. She depicts action with urgency and a wealth of descriptive detail. She resolves the various storylines running throughout the course of these 900+ pages in satisfying ways that never leaves readers feeling short-changed and doesn’t often strain credulity. She juggles multiple points of view throughout the novel and many readers will wish she utilized a different structure to address this, but her choices never prove fatal to the book. Julia Navarro has a journalist’s instincts for covering all her narrative bases and does so with You Shall Not Kill, arguably the most fully realized work of her career thus far. It is well worth the time such a length read demands.