Tue, May 08, 2012 - Page 16 News List

Book review: 'The Seamstress'

While not quite bursting at the seams with thrills and spills, ‘The Seamstress’ is an entertaining read

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

The Seamstress, by Maria Duenas.

When I began this book, called in the US The Time In Between, I assumed it was a blockbuster. These kinds of books have a strange position in the modern world — they’re rarely reviewed, yet they’re what most people read. The reason is almost certainly that reviewers tend to have literary tastes, look down on best sellers, and prefer to review products they think they are going to enjoy and, more importantly, will gain status from reviewing.

But halfway through I was proved to be wrong. Up till then the story of a young woman in Madrid in the 1930s had proceeded at a modest pace, describing her love life, and following her to Spanish Morocco and the city of Tetouan. A dressmaker who loses all her money and more when her typewriter-selling lover tricks her and quickly abandons her, she manages to pay off her debts by becoming couturier to the affluent Germans and elite supporters of General Franco, first in Tetouan and then later back in Madrid.

All this seemed harmless enough, with adventures mixed with problems solved, and all in an attractively exotic period setting. Then it dawned on me that several of the major characters were actually real-life figures, and prominent players in Spanish politics in the period between the end of the Spanish Civil War and the outbreak of World War II. There’s Sir Samuel Hoare, the UK’s “Ambassador on a Special Mission,” British embassy employee and covert spy Alan Hillgarth, and, most important of all, Juan Luis Beigbeder, first seen as High Commissioner of Spanish Morocco, then later as Franco’s Foreign Minister in Madrid.

The young dressmaker establishes contact with Beigbeder after an English woman, Rosalinda Powell Fox — also an historical figure — approaches her for a spectacular evening dress at very short notice. They quickly become friends, and eventually Rosalinda offers help in getting the seamstress’ mother out of Madrid and to the safely of Tetouan. The seamstress begins to attend official functions, but things get increasingly complex when it becomes clear that Beigbeder is less than wholly in sympathy with the ideas of the Fascists in whose state he’s functioning in increasingly important roles. After she has been recruited by Hillgarth to work as a British agent, stitching messages in Morse code into the hems of dresses, the couturier is then asked by Beigbeder to arrange for some documents of a dissident nature to be taken out of the country, secure in the UK’s diplomatic bag.

Publication Notes


By Maria Duenas

615 pages

Penguin Viking

Softcover: UK

This first novel took Spain by storm and has reportedly sold more than a million copies there. This is of course not automatically a recommendation — I’m a traditional book reviewer, after all — but it does to some extent explain the nature of the product. With its evocation of the North African scene — sand, sun, goats, blue-and-white awnings fluttering in a sea breeze — and its knowledge of dressmaking, of silk braid and red satin, this is a congenial, untroubling tale. It’s also well researched, able to range from references to King Alfonso XIII of Spain to the Spanish banknotes of the time, with Columbus on the 100-peseta bill and Don John of Austria on the 500-peseta bill.

Even more importantly, the author appears to get the politics right. British policy of the era was to keep Spain out of the war. Beigbeder is in sympathy, telling Franco that Spain needed wheat and oil from Britain and the US, and that in addition he should do all he could to keep the Germans out of Spain’s domestic affairs. However, the British also wanted to use Madrid’s social scene to get as much information as they could about the mind-sets and plans of individual Germans living there. Discovering such information becomes the seamstress’ first task in espionage.

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