‘This is escapism, but escapism with intelligence’ – The Seamstress by María Dueñas

The Seamstress is a sweeping epic following the life of Spaniard Sira Quiroga who from the age of twelve learns the art of dressmaking working alongside her mother in aMadrid atelier.  Sira’s life is transformed by the rogue Ramiro who seduces her, then whisks her away toMorocco. Soon, however, Sira’s fortunes change dramatically and she finds herself trapped and penniless in Morocco unable to return to aSpain in the grip of civil war. Sira falls back on her skills as a dressmaker, reinventing herself as a couturier to affluent Germans, a skill which leads her back to Madrid as the spectre of the Second World War looms on the horizon. There she is drawn into a world of spies and political intrigue that threatens her life.

The Seamstress is a story with a great deal of intellect and learning bolstering it. This shines through in the detailed descriptions ofSpain andMorocco during the 1930s and 1940s and the political climate prevalent there. The story is, however, the main event here and it’s a good one. The kind of old fashioned storytelling with twists, turns and reversals told through the eyes of our plucky heroine that I suspect the majority of the population love and adore for good reason. This is escapism, but escapism with intelligence.  Many of the characters here are drawn from real life: Alan Hillgarth, a British spy working inMadrid, Juan Luis Beigbeder, High Commissioner of Spanish Morocco and later Franco’s foreign minister inMadrid and his English lover turned spy Rosalinda Powell Fox. This gives the story backbone and meat. I enjoyed how Dueñas subverted our expectations of Sira foreshadowing her eventual reinvention as a spy. She’s a simple dressmaker, the kind of woman who one would expect, given the era, to be passive and sedentary sitting at home with her patterns and her fabrics, but it’s her skill as a seamstress that enables her to survive inMorocco and later to play a vital part in the British intelligence mission inSpain. So although this isn’t a classic spy story (it’s more a love story than anything) the elements Dueñas has used take the story beyond that usually classed as popular or commercial fiction.

My only criticism is that there is a lot of recap and repetition especially considering that this book weighs in at over six hundred pages; more vigorous editing would have taken the writing up a level. It felt as though Dueñas imagined her reader incapable of remembering the details unless constantly reminded. The reader can (and did).

Any Cop?: Yes. This book won’t change your life or be a particularly demanding read, but it will transport you to a time and a place full of exoticism and intrigue. Perfect for the long lazy days of summer.

Julie Fisher

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