The genre of 'Winter in Madrid' is described as historical fiction, although actually it's also a very decent thriller. Set in Madrid during the winter of 1940-41, it follows the story of three English former public school boys who have become caught up, in differing ways, with Franco's rule in Spain.
Attending Rookwood during the 1920s were Bernie, son of a grocer, who was able to attend the school through a scholarship, Sandy, a boy with a strict father who immediately sent him to a second public school after he managed to get himself expelled from the first, and Harry, who was caught between the two as he liked them both and they, being polar opposites, hated one another. The story mainly centres on Harry and is, I suspect, the character with whom the author identifies most strongly.
Harry is sent home from the war effort after being wounded at Dunkirk- he continues to suffer from tinnitus in one ear, as well as frequent panic attacks, but is asked by British Intelligence to return to Madrid in order to spy on his old friend, Sandy. He goes under the guise of working as a translator at the British embassy, but has in fact been commissioned to find out whether Sandy has found gold reserves which may help strengthen Franco's cause.
At the same time, Barbara, who was Bernie's old flame, has received information that has convinced her Bernie is still alive and being held in a labour camp, although they had thought he died fighting for the communists during the civil war. To complicate matters further, she is now in a relationship with Sandy, who Bernie always detested.
I found it slightly odd at first that C.J. Sansom had chosen to tell a story woven around an important era in Spanish history from the perspective of a group of Brits in Madrid. However, it becomes clear that this is more of a thriller centred around a love triangle than it is a historical novel; while the setting is far from irrelevant, it does seem to be there more to add to the atmosphere of intrigue and corruption than to serve an end in itself.
Having said that there are numerous flashbacks, told from Harry's perspective but in the third person, in which he goes on holiday to Spain with Bernie before the civil war and returns shortly afterwards to try and find out what has happened to him, and these scenes give us something of the flavour of the country and the historical background necessary to understand the main thread of the story.
While the story is not told from the perspective of a Spaniard, the situation Madrid was in during that winter is certainly more than just peripheral- Harry falls in love with a Spanish woman and we learn through her and through things Harry and Barbara see for themselves on the streets of Madrid some of the horrors Spaniards on both sides of the civil war endured; the oppressive atmosphere and the fear permeating it during that winter is also clearly evident in the narrative.
Interestingly, parts of the story are also told from the perspective of prisoners at a labour camp, and the ruthless manner in which they were treated as well as demoralised and sapped of their physical and mental strength is written of in a factual yet sympathetic manner.
The last book I read on the subject of the civil war and its aftermath in Spain was 'The Return,' by Victoria Hislop, and I have to say that I found 'Winter in Madrid' much more convincing, in that it is written in a non-sentimental way while still managing to cast a sympathetic eye over the events which occurred, whereas in 'The Return' I always felt that the author was writing with the sole intention of dragging an intense emotional reaction from the reader.
So, as a work of historical fiction I enjoyed this book and found that it told me what I wanted to know about this period of Spanish history, although I would like to expand on this by reading something from a Spanish perspective next.
From the point of view of it being a thriller it certainly works- I found myself gripped, especially by the last 100 pages or so, and noticed that my heart was beating faster in anticipation of the final scene, which I was completely unable to predict right up until the moment it occurred.
I would certainly recommend this book to anyone interested in Spain and its history, and to those who simply enjoy a good thriller, though it must be said that Jo Nesbo or Linwood Barclay, for instance, would provide a much easier, though less intellectual, read.
Having read and enjoyed C. J. Sansom's Shardlake trilogy, I was interested to see what would happen when the author moved out of his comfort zone of Tudor England and into another era and country. With that in mind, I took up Winter in Madrid. Set in Spain during the Second World War, it follows a number of different characters as they struggle to get to grips with Franco's Spain.
Winter in Madrid seems to divide people quite drastically. Mrs SWSt read it and quite enjoyed it; my mother-in-law struggled to get into it and eventually gave up, and I sat somewhere in the middle, enjoying parts of it, but finding other bits hard going. Certainly, it was not as interesting or engaging as his Tudor Tales.
One of the difficulties of Winter in Madrid is that it doesn't really have a "central" character, as such. It attempts to tell the story of Spain during the war through the eyes of three characters: Harry, an injured veteran sent to spy on an old school friend; Barbara, the wife of Harry's friend; and Bernard, the ex-lover of Barbara and friend of Harry, now locked in a POW camp for his Socialist beliefs. This means the narrative lacks a little focus. Sansom tries to build up our sympathy and support for the plight of the various characters, but the fact that he switches between them means they all become a little diluted. Although it's interesting to see the same events viewed from different perspectives, it can be disruptive to a coherent narrative. All the characters are a little unsympathetic as, to a large extent, their circumstances are often the result of their own duplicity. With no hero to identify with or to follow, Winter in Madrid sometimes becomes a murky mess.
An interesting element is that, despite the fact the book is set in Spain, the majority of the key characters are English. As such, they always stand on the outside of the new Spanish society, looking in. This is a useful narrative trick to show how confusing Spain has become (and to explain how it works to the reader), but it does mean that you never feel truly immersed in Spanish society or understand why things are the way they are. The success of the Shardlake books stemmed, in large part, from the fact that the Tudor England Sansom created felt real, and the characters like they were a genuine part of that society. Here, Harry, Barbara and Bernie always react like outsiders and, as a result, so do we.
There's no doubt that, as usual, Sansom has done a huge amount of historical research in ensuring places and events are accurate and give a good sense of what Spain was like. Yet, the society he reconstructs feels artificial and dry - an academic re-imagination, rather than a real place. Some of the references to historical events feel a little forced too, as though Sansom is trying to cram in all the information he has found out. At one point, for example, he makes a reference to Kim Philby in such a crass way that it screams "look clever I am, weaving all these historical realities into my made-up story."
Sansom's normally highly readable style suffers a little, too. Standard practice amongst many authors appears to be to write short chapters towards the start of the book. This introduces characters, places and situations gradually and tempts the reader. Longer chapters are then gradually introduced to allow for greater plot and character development. Sansom seems to take the opposite approach with Winter in Madrid. He starts off with very long chapters and progresses to shorter ones as the book goes on. To some extent, this is equally logical: finishing with short chapters helps the book build momentum, develop a pace which signifies that everything is coming to a climax, and create a sense of excitement. Yet it also means that getting through the first part of the book is a bit of a chore; a turgid slog through hundreds of pages of text. These are meant to build up background and help you sympathise with the characters and their plight, but to me they felt more like something that had to be endured before I could get to the exciting "meat" of the story.
Eventually, after a lot of background story, the main plot strands finally start to come together (albeit in a rather artificial way). Once that happens, it's easily the best part of the book - providing an interesting, exciting, well-written story that engages your attention - exactly what I've come to expect from a Sansom book. All too quickly, though, this is over and the book finishes abruptly in a very disappointing and dissatisfying manner. The ending is meant to tie up all the loose ends and connect everything together. In reality, it feels like a rush job, as though Sansom either couldn't be bothered, or wasn't sure how to finish the book properly.
All in all, Winter in Madrid proved a huge disappointment. Having read it, it does rather make wonder whether Sansom is a one-trick pony: stick him in Tudor England with Matthew Shardlake and he's fine; take him out of that and he's struggles to provide a readable book.
It's a shame, as there is a nugget of a good story in Winter in. It just takes such a long time to get there and leads to such a formulaic ending that, overall, the big feels like a huge anti-climax.
Winter in Madrid
C. J. Sansom
Pan Books, new edition, 2006
© Copyright SWSt 2009
Winter in Madrid centres around three British men in Spain in the early part of the Second World War, in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Harry Brett, having been injured at Dunkirk, agrees to go to Spain at the request of the intelligence services that want him to gather information on Sandy Forsyth with whom Brett went to school. Brett is already familiar with Madrid having visited the city twice before; the first time with another old school-friend Bernie Piper and the second time to search for Bernie after he has been reported missing fighting with the International Brigades during the civil war.
The novel is essentially a wartime thriller with a good dose of espionage but it is also a historical account of a very specific time in Spanish history. It is a time that many people perhaps know little about: certainly in Britain most history lessons focus on World War Two than the Spanish Civil War and, as a result, the author frequently attributes his readership with perhaps a greater knowledge of the period than should be expected. The various references to the political system, the key players, the blockade of Spain by the British and other events would be better explained to make the book more enjoyable to the average reader.
I bought the book because of the suggestion on the cover that if you liked Carlos Ruiz Zafon (Shadow of the Wind) or Sebastian Faulks (I imagine that Birdsong and Charlotte Gray were in mind), then you would enjoy Winter In Madrid. I did enjoy Shadow of the Wind and I am a big fan of Sebastian Faulks, and I did enjoy Winter In Madrid. However, this novel comes nowhere near the works of Zafon or Faulks in terms of writing
Given the subject matter and the location, this story was always going to be starkly told but Sansom lacks a spark of vitality to bring the locations alive and the characteristion is poor. He conveys the devastation of the city quite well but there is something lacking. The characters are pretty one dimensional and not very credible. It may have something to do with the public school upbringing and the middle class outlook of Forsyth and Brett but I found them pompous and tiring. As for Piper, the son of an east end shopkeeper who attended public school on the back of a scholarship, his chirpy demeanour and his optimistic spirit were a frankly laughable stereotype of the most crass kind.
The style of writing was not only lacking in descriptive quality but it was also stilted and repetitive. I dont know how many times Barbara bit her lip or Bernie bit his lip or Harry bit his lip lets just say it was more times than I could count. Similarly, the dialogue was poor; even when the characters were supposed to be at the heights of emotion the language and tone was unbelievable, even if you try to shake it off by putting it down to English stiff upper lip.
However, in spite of these points, I really enjoyed Winter in Madrid. I found the story utterly compelling and was able, for the main part, to ignore the negatives because of the strength of the story. The preamble I could live without; those parts were still predictable and stereotypical. The idea of Forsyth as the wayward son of a Bishop and his secret passion for collecting fossils that revealed him as sensitive after all were a joke.
To be fair the story is quite slow but the action gathers pace in the final 150 pages and from there it was a series of thrilling twists and turns that left my heart pounding. If only the final chapter hadnt been such a cringe-making return to the insipidness of the opening part of the book! I realise my appraisal sounds contradictory but the fast-paced final part really did make up for the cardboard characters and the dull writing.
Only in that Shadow of the Wind and Winter in Madrid are both set in Spain could one compare Sansom to Zafon; the work of the latter is more dark and serious and much more descriptive and evocative. As for the mention of Faulks, I can only think the connection came from espionage during the war being the central theme of Charlotte Gray; in terms of writing ability, Faulks is head and shoulders above this.
Some readers have suggested that Winter in Madrid is teeming with inaccuracies. However, the author does apologise for these in a note at the end of the book, explaining that these are due to the demands of the plot. I did not notice any, but, as I said, Im no expert on this period. If you are I would imagine you would be pretty disappointed. On the other hand, if this is a period of history you want to know more about, this is not the book for you. The author expects his readers to know as much about the period as he does and, given that he has a PhD in the subject, thats unlikely.
I am awarding Winter In Madrid three stars because I found the plot clever and compelling. If Faulks had written this, the characters would have been fully formed and more believable. As it is, Winter in Madrid can be summed up as an excellent idea but lacking the other components that make a novel fully rounded.
Published by Macmillan