The fossils Sandy Forsyth loves are a wonderful metaphor for the historical period this novel spans, 1937-1947, in war-torn Spain. For fossils hold full or partial body parts in their last colossal, life-death battle. It's a time full of surprises, when the strong are shown to be weak and vice versa. Sandy's favorite fossil, a dinosaur's limb, vividly displays Spain's hopes and defeats, "...curled, as though the creature had been about to strike when it died."
First, meet Bernie Piper, a graduate of the prestigious Rookwood School in England, now lying at the foot of a knoll in the Jarama Valley, Spain in February of 1937. He's a die-hard socialist, rejecting everything he learned in school and sharing the fight against the Generalissimo Franco's fascist followers. It doesn't look like a victory Bernie will win!
Then get to really know Barbara Clare, an ex in so many ways - ex-Red Cross nurse, ex-lover of Bernie, and expatriate who is lost in her despair over possibly having lost Bernie, seeing the Spanish situation corrode into devastating poverty and death, and being lost in her relationship with Sandy Forsyth who seems bent on recreating her in his own image. But Barbara knows more than she's telling and may have a way to find out if Bernie is still alive as a prisoner of war in the brutal prisoner-of-war camps run by the rigid, ultra-Catholic Republican Guards.
Enters Harry Brett, a spy for the British Secret Service. Harry really doesn't want to be doing this job but is reluctantly enticed into spying on his old school friend, Sandy, in Madrid. Harry's recovering from brutal injuries he received while fighting in Dunkirk, barely over his posttraumatic panic attacks and barely in possession of full hearing yet. The pages that follow rivet the reader's focus in two directions.
The convoluted chronology of Spain's political situation introduces the reader to the powers supporting Franco, the Republicans and the Communists, all vying for supremacy and at the same time feeling Hitler's pincer-like approach ever-looming. Who to trust? Who to support? How to survive? One clearly sees, after a brief while, that there are no winners as each group in its fanatical fervor destroys the land they claim to love. Leaders and manipulators flourish; the poor and destitute live parasitical lives in order to get through this horrific conflict.
What Harry eventually discovers, in the second focus of this novel, is far worse than originally contemplated. Sandy's involved in something bigger and deadlier than even he realizes. As one swiftly turns these pages, he or she is stunned at the breathtaking end in which all bets are off and the plot unravels in a most unexpected manner with devastating results.
C. J. Sansom, with a well-researched, dynamic presentation, vividly presents a historical, romantic, adventurous story in a tightly plotted manner. This story deserves wide acclaim as a notable blockbuster, portraying a too often ignored but potent segment of Spain and England's history and politics.
Reviewed by Viviane Crystal on February 9, 2009