There are few grand reversals in the plot, the surprise revelations of past involvements and present betrayals that are the stuff of the spy novel. Instead, it proceeds at a leisurely pace, so much so that at one point I pondered on whether the author had used Balzac’s reputed method of writing a series of sentences and then expanding each of them into a paragraph. But this isn’t really a spy story at all, rather an imaginative re-creation of a past world with romantic, political, social and quietly personal elements carefully woven together. The virtues of an upmarket dressmaker, in other words, seem to inhabit the soul of this novelist as well.
The English-language book trade needs a certain number of books of this type — novels that don’t demand a huge amount of intellectual agility on the part of the reader, but are at the same time professionally written and refuse the blockbuster’s stock in trade of gratuitous violence and graphic sex scenes. You don’t need to be a genius to enjoy The Seamstress, nor do you need to be a woman, though it will probably attract more female than male readers. Instead, it will fill up a good many empty hours. The translation by Daniel Hahn flows very smoothly, though I did have to wonder whether “inolvidable” was a leftover from the original Spanish.
Most of all, this isn’t a book stamped with any unmistakable mark of the author’s personality, at least in this English-language version. I know no more about Maria Duenas now I’ve finished the book than I did before I started it. Irony, comedy, scenes of heartbreaking tenderness or of nail-biting tension are all absent, as are purple passages. In conclusion, then, I wouldn’t go out of my way to press this novel on everyone I know, but nor would I argue strongly against it. However, Spain in the 1930s aroused intense passions all over Europe, and it’s when considering this that this novel begins to appear, for reasons that are hard to understand, surprisingly passionless.