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A wintry review for a wintry day!
Winter in Madrid - C.J. Sansom
Member Name: SWSt
Winter in Madrid - C.J. Sansom
Advantages: Potentially interesting story, gains momentum in second part
Disadvantages: Takes took long to get going, disappointing ending
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
Summary: Less Viva Espagna than Leave-A (lone) Espagne