Monday, February 16, 2009

Review: Winter in Madrid by C.J. Sansom

About the Book: September 1940: the Spanish Civil War is over, Madrid lies in ruin, while the Germans continue their march through Europe, and General Franco evades Hitler’s request that he lead his broken country into yet another war. Into this uncertain world comes a reluctant spy for the British Secret Service, sent to gain the confidence of Sandy Forsyth, an old school friend turned shady Madrid businessman. Meanwhile, an ex-Red Cross nurse is engaged in a secret mission of her own. Through this dangerous game of intrigue, C. J. Sansom’s riveting tale conjures a remarkable sense of history unfolding and the profound impact of impossible choices.

My Review: This book is unlike most of the historical fiction I read. The setting is utterly depressing, but still brought sharply to life through the many events that take place throughout the course of the book. I could just feel the desperation of Spain during this time period, (and at one point jokingly told my mom, "the book I'm reading makes me want to kill myself." To which she replied, "I think it's time to put that book down") I didn't want to put the book down, though, because I genuinely cared about the fate of the characters and even though the place I was transported to through the pages wasn't happy, I was still learning and learning a lot. I knew nothing about the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath before reading this book, and in a haunting eerie way, I was reminded of how we are never that far away from that sort of hopelessness and poverty. With our own economy going steadily down the toilet, I sometimes wonder just how fragile our peace really is.

We begin the story with Harry, the main character taking a spy position in Spain. He's not your typical spy, but agrees to the post and we are often treated to the conflict he experiences and his grief for Spain. As his story slowly unfolds, the other characters rise to the surface and their stories are told as well. In fact, the plotting itself in the book is something to be savored as it gently unravels.

The pacing isn't exactly brisk, but I was never bored. And while the book comes in at 530 pages, it was 530 pages necessary for the full impact of the story to be felt.
There are a couple of love stories in the book as well, though they don't receive too much attention.

I very much enjoyed this book and I'm glad that I read it. I hope to check out more of C.J. Sansom's books in the future, but I do caution that this is heavy reading. Even so, it is recommended. Purchase the book here.

Rating: 4.5/5
Things You Might Want to Know: There's a wee bit of language, and a great deal of animosity towards the Catholic church. There's also some violence though nothing is unbearably graphic.



Meghan said...

Sounds sort of like his Matthew Shardlake mysteries. Well, I only read one, but the grim and depressing nature of the story combined with the strange affection you feel for the characters certainly sounds similar.

bermudaonion said...

That sounds good, but I have to be in the right mood to tackle a book like that. Thanks for the review.

Michele said...

I just finished this one and it will end up being one of my favorite books of the year. I absolutely loved it!

kel said...

sounds perfect! I love historical fiction!!

Beth Kephart said...

I had not heard about this book and absolutely need to read it. Thank you!

Toni said...

What a great review. I want to read this one. I think Historical Fiction is my favorite genre. I would love to read this perspective. Thank for the review. I had not heard of this book.

Amy said...

Meghan...oh so they're all grim?? I do want to read those books, though.

Kathy..if you get a chance to read it, I'll look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Michele..can't wait to read your review!'s a good one!

Beth..I hope you like it!'s a good one, though heavy.

Literate Housewife said...

Amy, I'm glad you brought this review to my attention because I've never heard of it before. It does sound interesting. I know exactly how you feel when you said that this book made you want to kill yourself. I've been there before. I also appreciate your heads-up on the anti-Catholicism. I don't typically mind negative portrayals in novels because the Church is not perfect and has been known at times throughout history as being very seriously wrong. I need to be in the right frame of mind before I begin a book like this, though.

Carrie said...

On an off subject - the winter book swap concluded at Reading to Know and I've tried contacting you via e-mail and through your blog but haven't heard back. If you could contact me soon, that would be great!

readingtoknow (at) gmail (dot) com

FleurFisher said...

I have looked at this book in the library and wondered about it. Your review is wonderful and I am definitely planning on reading it now. Thank you!

Marta said...

I've heard really good things about this book, so I know I'm going to want to pick this one up. Thanks for the great, in-depth review Amy!

Marta's Meanderings

Meehumm said...

I read this book last year and thought it was good, but essentially hopeless.

I'm impressed with Sansom as a writer.

Wendi B. - Wendi's Book Corner ~ Rainy Day Reads in Seattle said...

I really enjoy historical books, but it really does sound a bit on the heavy side!

:) Wendi

Teddy Rose said...

Thanks for the wonderful review. This book was on offer to me to review and I had to turn it down. I need to catch up with my present ARC commitments. Now I'll have to add it to my TBR.

Anonymous said...

Dear Amy

I have just finished reading the book and enjoyed it because of the strength of the plot, although I think elements of the writing are weak (needless repetition of detail, some easy-to-avoid inaccuracies in the use of Spanish and with the geography of the city of Madrid and of Spain as a whole).

What irked me most, though, was something you touch on, Sansom's facile portrayal of the Catholic Church in Spain during those horrendously difficult years.

Sansom says in his notes at the end of the book that he is convinced his treatment of the Church is fair. I don't think it is. If everything were as black and white as he paints it, it would have been utterly impossible for a figure such as Cardinal Enrique Vicente y Tarancón, archbishop of Madrid from 1971 until 1983, to have emerged in the aftermath of the civil war.

... More to follow.

Anonymous said...

... Continued from the comment above.

Cardinal Tarancón was from the province of Castellón, worked as a priest in Catalonia and first served as a bishop there, in the small diocese of Solsona. He was consecrated bishop in 1945, so only a few years after the period Sansom is writing about. He was later named archbishop of Oviedo in Asturias, which as Sansom says correctly, was strongly republican in the civil war.

He devoted his entire episcopal career to bringing reconciliation to Spanish people of all political persuasions and none and was a gigantic figure in the post-civil war history of the entire country, not just of the Catholic Church there.

This is a very complex question I'm afraid, to which no short answer can do justice, but Sansom's treatment of it is, in my opinion, unbalanced, tendentious and lazy.

... More to follow.

Anonymous said...

... Continued from the previous comment.

As someone who loves the Church and Spain, I'm deeply interested in the matter, at all levels, although I'm not Spanish and I'm not a priest.

First, there can be no question that the Catholic Church enjoyed privileges under Franco and came to have too much influence on daily life in Spain, in a similar way to Ireland. That cannot be denied, and it's easy to see why people then throw back in the face of the Church questions over collaboration with Franco. But it's really not that simple and tracking back to see how the relationship between the Church and Franco came to develop as it did is fascinating.

I know that there is very insightful material in a letter published by the Catholic bishops of Spain on 1 July 1937. By this time, they as a collective seemed to support Franco, although it's interesting to note that the Vatican, at this point, did not. Nevertheless, the bishops' letter makes it clear that they wanted peace and reconciliation and had resisted the notion of the civil war for, they felt, as long as they could. Also, they make a point of saying they hope that, should Franco prevail, the nascent Francoist state will not go down the lines of "foreign models", a clear reference to Germany and Italy.

In that letter, the bishops also published for the first time details of the persecution the Church had endured in the first year of the war. The use of the word is justified: 14 bishops and 7,000 priests were assassinated and 20,000 Catholic lay people were also killed solely, the bishops said in the letter, because they were Catholics. Between February and July 1936, 410 churches were sacked and burned.

In the years that followed World War II, I have no doubt that the strengthening of Franco's Spain as an officially Catholic country, meaning that the Catholic Church was the established Church, brought out a triumphalist attitude in some Catholics, including priests and bishops, which is lamentable.

Nevertheless, to imply that this triumphalism characterised Spanish catholicism, as Sansom does, is to tail to understand how Cardinal Tarancón could have held the attitude he did and could have come to dominate Catholic opinion in the way he did.

He was also a key figure in Spain's contribution to Vatican II, which is crucial to what comes next. The council reinforced in Tarancón the conviction he had built up from his own experience of the civil war and the years that followed, and he preached, wrote, spoke and campaigned tirelessly from then until he died in 1994 for reconciliation.

He said he had promised God that he would do everything he possibly could to make sure nothing like the civil war would ever occur in Spain again and he wrote that the Catholic Church must be an instrument of reconciliation and not of division.

Vatican II and Tarancón, plus lots of younger priests, religious and lay people and a host of bishops appointed by Paul VI, have made it possible for the new Spain, post Franco, to build up a new Church, a new way of living the Catholic faith.

Thank God what CJ Sansom thinks is an accurate depiction of the Church is no more than the result of a writer lacking understanding of his subject and reaching for the stereotypes. Maybe he thinks sources that have never been translated into English are somehow second rate.

Sorry to go on at such length.

Stephen, from Scotland.

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