The Seamstress by Frances de Pontes Peebles

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The Seamstress by Frances de Pontes Peebles

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis
Reviewed by Trish Simpson-Davis
Summary: In 1928 seamstress sisters divide when rural Brazilian cangaceiros capture Luzia, while her sister marries into polite society. A well-researched and engrossing read, particularly if you, or your book group, like long novels.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 656 Date: February 2009
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
ISBN: 978-0747596868

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The Seamstress was unusually and utterly absorbing. The story became an integral part of my life for a week or so, and I often found myself on scene in Brazil. The characters hung around, when I wasn't reading. I actually found myself holding my breath as I swooped through each paragraph, a sense of imminent tragedy settling heavier with each downward turn to their lives. A convincing historical novel gives us an intimate, never-to-be-forgotten view of the period, and this was such a book.

It's also very long at 656 pages. By comparison with most modern novels, this book requires a concentrated portion of 'Me-Time', not easily accumulated in a busy life. Each word needs to be read. The writing is powerful and loaded with sensory observation. Sometimes I re-read a passage, just to savour the language or contemporary detail again.

Much of the richness of the book comes, I think, from authentic detailing provided by the author's research in Brazil. Although set at the time of the Wall Street Crash and following Depression years, in rural Pernambuco people are still fettered in a feudal system of allegiance to local colonels. When there is drought, crops fail, and starvation ensues. The author convinces us that brutality is commonplace. At every tribulation, ordinary recourse is to superstition, not science.

The story is told by sisters Emília and Luzia (the Seamstress). The Prologue sets the scene. Emília, a girl of lowly country origins, has married into the New-Rich Coelho household in Recife. It's a stifling, conservative hierarchy, with Emília sandwiched in status between her mother-in-law and the servants. The family money comes from an import business, but her father-in-law, Dr Duarte Coelho, now studies the phrenology of criminals. Emilia is tolerated while her husband is alive because she brings a veneer of respectability to his homosexual lifestyle. Degas' sudden death leaves her adrift and isolated from her family.

It's apparent from the Prologue that Emília has a connection with infamous bandit cangaceiros, the Hawk and the Seamstress. Quite literally, they have high prices on their heads for their high-profile and gruesome raids.

Emília moves into flashback to sketch the sisters' early life, including the accident that immobilized Luzia's arm and her own determination to escape from poverty. After their village is ransacked by the cangaceiros, the viewpoint alternates between the two sisters, Luzia and Emília. In 1928, Luzia is claimed by Antônio, the Hawk. She leaves the safe poverty of her village for the life-threatening hardships of bandit life. It is too dangerous for a cangaceiro to depart the group alive and we are always aware that Luzia is moving inexorably towards death after accepting the outlaws' brutal lifestyle.

Left behind, Emília stands completely alone on the death of Aunt Sofia. She rejects sewing and carves an upward path by marrying Degas and entering Recife's moneyed society. The sisters appear completely disjointed, but in the next seven years, they occasionally glimpse each other's lives through newspaper reports. Their lives again intertwine when Luzia has need of Emília. Events move towards their tragic end as Emília, from the city, tries to protect Luzia. It's an insightful and convincing portrait of the conflicting jealousies and loyalties of a sibling relationship.

As a character, the Hawk towers over them. His face, one-half frozen by injury, one-half mobile, is a motif for the paradoxes in his personality. He is by turns violent and compassionate, robust and vulnerable, merciless and saintly, uncivilized and wise. He is hero-worshipped by the country people, which he interprets as licence to political leadership. From an unsophisticated, reactionary standpoint, he opposes plans for a road to develop the interior, although development will move his compatriots out of poverty and famine. He backs himself into ever more bloodshed, which loses him popular support and ensures the eventual betrayal of his group. Ironically, the Hawk has a moral code in which loyalty to friends is a given, yet he will meet death from a friend's hand.

Despite his gruesome propensities, Antônio's gentleness towards Luzia makes him an appealing hero. The sparse pragmatism of their covertly-expressed love is very poignant. For me, the tragic climax of the novel is his death.

I read the remaining third of the story, hoping some green shoots of redemption might sprout for Luzia. I was disappointed, of course, since her inevitable destiny is foreshadowed through the novel. As with all the best historical fiction, the characters echo down the years. I highly recommend this book to other readers.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals to you then we think that you might also enjoy The Armies by Evelio Rosero which is set in Columbia. The setting for Evening is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan is half a world away, but we think that it's another book to savour.

Booklists.jpg The Seamstress by Frances de Pontes Peebles is in the Top Ten Books For Your Girlfriend.

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