Guadalupe Nettel

MacLehose, £14.99

In 2014, After the Winter won one of the most prestigious literary awards in Spain. Its English translation, by Rosalind Harvey, conducts itself with such poetic elegance and evokes such a precise shade of melancholia that it’s easy to see why the judges were so impressed with the original.

Its two narrators may be too old for the traditional rites of passage novel, but nevertheless this is a story about the challenging lessons of growing up.

The chapters alternate between their two voices. There is Claudio, a

Cuban-born New Yorker, who strives for a life of isolation. His dingy apartment is little more than a “stone corridor”, its only redeeming feature being that it’s a Manhattan apartment Claudio could actually afford, and it’s sacrosanct. No one must cross its threshold but Claudio himself.

He looks down on the human herd generally, and even those he can tolerate he sees no need to get any closer to than is strictly necessary. He permits himself a girlfriend, a woman 15 years his senior whose manner and sophistication have genuinely beguiled him, but he places firm restrictions on how often they can meet and how deeply they can get involved, so that his precious lifestyle isn’t compromised.

Cecilia, meanwhile, lives in Paris, having moved there from Mexico to study. She is fascinated by cemeteries and is lucky enough to find a cheap apartment that overlooks Père Lachaise. Cecilia is more open to forming bonds with people, but what she and Claudio seem to have in common is a preference for others to treat them with polite indifference. Even so, she is soon worn down by the sullenness, the “grumpy, antisocial apathy” of Parisians and ceases even to be curious about them.

However, she finds that the sickly man in the flat next door shares her fondness for cemeteries and they strike up a friendship which looks like it’s leading to something more, until he retreats to a Mediterranean island for the sake of his health, after which Cecilia hears virtually nothing from him.

When our two narrator protagonists spiral into each other’s orbits, as they do midway through the book, what will be the outcome? Can they reconcile their lifestyles and emotional needs to each other, or will they just be glancing ships in the night, coming away from the encounter wiser but possibly sadder?

Nettel transfixes with this insightful and painfully poignant novel, which examines the bonds between people, the degrees of intimacy and commitment we allow ourselves and the toll that isolation can take on the soul. She interrogates her characters about how they define love, and how far they’re prepared to lower their defences and leave themselves in danger of becoming overwhelmed by the emotional nakedness that comes with true commitment. She asks how well we need to know ourselves before we can love others. And yet, by the end of this thorough exploration, for all that Nettel has given us to ponder, the human heart remains as magical and mysterious as it ever was.