Monday, February 22, 2010

Review: Winter in Madrid by C.J. Sansom

Fans of C.J. Sansom's Tudor-era detective Matthew Shardlake may appreciate this 20th-century Spanish interlude, written between Sovereign and Revelation but set some 400 years and 800 miles distant from Henry VIII's London. Or they may wish he'd stuck with the Renaissance series instead of switching to a nearly contemporary thriller about the intersecting lives of three British public school classmates who, improbably, meet again in Franco's Spain--one of them a Communist p.o.w., one an amoral profiteer, and one an increasingly disillusioned traditionalist who only wants to do the right thing.

I liked the book right up to the thrilling denouement, and then I wasn't so sure. Like Shardlake, Harry Brett is an observer in a world gone mad. The principal action takes place in 1940, after Franco's coalition has won the civil war and is attempting to rebuild a flattened country. Ideologues have turned murderous. Factions have split into warring sub-factions. The established church is collaborating with evil. Honesty is not necessarily the best policy, for nothing is as it seems.

Somewhat too-frequent flashbacks give the backstory: class resentments, romance, a war injury. English characters--the three men, a female nurse, various embassy employees--are well developed; Spanish characters less so. Knowing next to nothing about the Spanish Civil War, I found myself consulting old history textbooks and Wikipedia to try to understand the references (this slowed down my reading, but I learned a lot). And once I was up to speed, I was drawn into the story's romance, intrigue, and terror.

Sansom, a professional historian, knows how to bring other times, other places alive. Historical and geographical detail illuminates but does not blind. As I read, I found the same thought going through my mind that haunted me as I read the Tudor books: Something like this could happen here. Bitter antagonism between ideological enemies; willingness to harm others for the sake of political beliefs; powerful deal-makers enriching themselves at the expense of the people they govern--is our fractious society preparing once again for similar horrors?

Near the end of the book, one of the main characters says something striking:
"The people, the ordinary people, it looks like they've lost but one day, one day people won't be manipulated and hounded by bosses and priests and soldiers any more; one day they will free themselves, live with freedom and dignity as people were meant to."
This affirmation of hope jumped off the page, probably because I've just read a forthcoming book by Desmond and Mpho Tutu called Made for Goodness. Confidence like this--in the Tutus' case, bolstered by faith in God--kept Archbishop Tutu going during apartheid. But by book's end, Madrid's confidence seems to run out, replaced by cynicism. That is no reason to avoid the book, however. It's a good read, and very thought provoking. I'd like to know what thoughts it provokes in you.

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