The Seamstress by Maria Duenas

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The Seamstress by Maria Duenas

Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A panoramic sweep of a historic novel that doesn't seem half as long as it looks and will reward your time with some memorable moments.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 624 Date: April 2012
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 978-0670920020

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Richard and Judy Book Club Autumn 2012

Initially published as The Time in Between in 2011, The Seamstress follows Sira Quiroga from poverty-stricken childhood, through to the war time Special Operations Executive agent against a backdrop of Franco's Spain and ex-pat populated Morocco.

Raised in Spain by her mother and unaware of her father's identity, Sira moves to Morocco following her true love, only to be left stranded and alone. However, there's a kind-hearted, rough diamond of a local who, via unorthodox and downright dangerous means, pushes Sira towards reliance on the one thing she's brought from Spain: her gift with the sewing needle. This propels her into a business serving the cream of Moroccan ex-pat society, and that includes Nazi officers' wives and mistresses; a clientele that has possibilities that certain powers seem very happy to utilise.

Spanish writer and university professor/lecturer Maria Duenas has written a physically weighty novel but don't be put off by either its size or the professor's academic day job. If you want a signpost before you start reading, I would say Barbara Taylor Bradford meets Ken Follett. There are one or two moments where perhaps the story staggers ever so slightly during the word marathon, but on the whole, the book flies by. This is mainly due to the fact that The Seamstress is more a trilogy under one cover than one book.

The first two notional sections (think of them as Sira the poor and Sira the embryonic business woman) are 'Bradfordesque'. Sira evolves from disadvantaged child to capricious young woman, iron willed and determined (used for both good and ill). As the novel combines the local colour of Spain as well as the creeping fear, whilst it struggles to determine its political future via violence, we understand why Sira considers her first boyfriend and fiancé to be rather wet, just as we understand him. We understand the decision she makes next, while cringing with the fore-knowledge of the inevitable next stage. She's not a very nice person at this time, but that's her age and lack of experience. (In other words, that's good writing.)

Then we follow Sira to Morocco and the author's artistic bent really takes off, reflecting the exotic scenery and culture in the nation's residents. Larger than life artist (and Sira's neighbour) Felix Arunda is an easy to love presence. He comes with a fascinating love/hate relationship with his live-in mother; his murderous intent towards her, tempered by a good deal of unspoken affection. Candelaria, the Moroccan guesthouse owner and second mother to lost, abandoned waifs of all ages, takes Sira under her wing. Candelaria is practical, has a heart of gold and the idea of gun-running to secure Sira's future. The end will justify the means... As long as everyone tied up in the enterprise survives, that is.

The moment Sira lands in Morocco we move from girl struggling to survive life to girl struggling to survive war; the reader is plunged into a Follett-like thriller deepening in intensity and excitement in parallel with Sira's increasing involvement. Things will fall apart as that's the nature of a wartime spy thriller, but Maria Duenas ensures the secrecy (and therefore twist) lies in the identity of the catalyst or messenger of doom, along with all the 'heart-in-mouth' moments you expect from the genre.

Maria Duenas' qualification (document research, verification and contextualisation, or 'philology' for short) holds her in good stead whilst not detracting from the imaginative side of her brain. Once Sira moves to Morocco she starts mixing with real historical figures. Her dear friend, Rosalinda Fox, was indeed an English ex-pat who had an affair with Spanish high ranking official, Juan Luis Biegbeder and here, once again, the author cleverly twists our perspective. The married Rosalinda could easily be painted a bright shade of scarlet woman, but ways are found to ensure that we empathise. Other 'real life' ex-pats pad out the cast and Sira's address book, and not all of them so loveable.

There was only one moment in the book when my suspension of disbelief wavered and that was right at the end. Without giving anything away, people sitting around spontaneously revealing the secrets that they had guarded with their lives only pages before seems a little too convenient. But we're talking one moment in over 600 pages so it's not a huge complaint. In fact The Seamstress holds very little to complain about but much with which to escape the mundane therefore, as far as I'm concerned, that's mission accomplished.

I would like to thank Penguin for providing Bookbag with a copy of this book for review.

If you've enjoyed this and would like to dip your toe further into Spanish literature, try The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

Buy The Seamstress by Maria Duenas at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Seamstress by Maria Duenas at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Seamstress by Maria Duenas at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Seamstress by Maria Duenas at Amazon.com.


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