Winter in Madrid Paperback – 2009
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This scenario enables Sansom, moving backwards and forwards in time, to paint a vivid and evocative picture of Spain in this period: the grim Republican resistance to Franco's advancing forces during the civil war, the ruined and dilapidated state of Madrid just after the civil war under Franco's rule, the hatreds which were still blazing when the war was over. It is clear where Sansom's sympathies lie: he paints scathing pictures of the Catholic clergy, is contemptuous of the wealthy Franco supporters, and has made Bernie the novel's hero. The historical background is very well researched. The tensions on the hapless Republican side, between Liberals, Stalinists and Trotskyists are fairly well known, but Sansom is also illuminating on the tension between the victors: between the Falangists and the monarchists. So on each side everyone is plotting against everyone else. There is at least one real historical figure in the book: Sir Samuel Hoare, the British ambassador to the Franco regime at the time, anxious to keep Spain out of the Second World War and hoping to find allies in this endeavour among the monarchists.
Interwoven with Harry's activities as a spy, there are two love stories. One involves Barbara Clare, who had met and fallen in love with Bernie when she was an unpolitical Red Cross nurse during the civil war. After his disappearance she lived with Sandy, but was still trying to find out whether Bernie was not still alive - a dangerous thing to do in Franco Spain. The other involves Harry and a young left-wing Spanish woman.
The plot moves forward a little slowly in the first half of this very long book of 549 pages, but I did not mind that: my interest did not flag; and anyway the pace quickens and the tension rises about half way through. The style occasionally degenerates into clichés, but there are many memorable set pieces, including a particularly haunting one about a pack of feral dogs in the ruins of Madrid. And those who know Spain only through their summer holidays will not be familiar with the winter's biting cold, which here enters into the reader's bones.
Into this scene comes the ex- public school boy Harry Brett, a traumatized World War I veteran, recruited as a reluctant spy. The British Secret Services aim to use Harry's language skills as cover for him to spy on his old school chum, Sandy Forsyth, now a ruthless businessman working in and around Madrid.
From bombings in London to depression in Madrid, Harry seeks to make contact with Forsyth, which plunges him into an uncertain and dangerous world of the black market and political alliances.
Meanwhile another former school contemporary, Bernie, (missing presumed dead), is being searched for by his girlfriend who is now the not-so-willing girlfriend of the slick Forsyth.
The class system, black market and disappearance of innocent people continues long after the civil war has ended. Drought and destroyed infrastructure have left the people on the edge of starvation, rummaging in rubbish bags and begging. Nice "boy" Harry reluctantly learns to live, lie and survive on these streets.
This book is a page-turner, with its enjoyable action-packed twists and the moving not -so- far fetched descriptions of the times. Some of the years after the war and under Franco's regime were harder and more harrowing than the war itself.
Simpson has woven a great tale of history, love and intrigue, which blends this story into a classic tale of loyalties and new allegiances. There's no need to be a spy or war book fan to enjoy the novel; it is a satisfying read for many reasons including love entanglements, history, and emotion.
A big story, fascinating read and a great introduction to the troubled times that mark Spain's past.
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
He's good. He's very good. But this (standalone) book isn't quite up to the earlier series. It's nowhere near "disappointing" -- it's just not going to be among the books that I insist you MUST read.
One reason may be that Winter in Madrid is set in a time much closer to our own. Events take place from 1937 to 1940 in Madrid, Spain, encompassing both the Spanish revolution and the early part of World War II, from the English point of view. The primary character is Harry Brett, an upper-class chap who's still recovering from his experiences at Dunkirk, and who is sent to Madrid to buddy-up with an old school chum, Sandy Forsyth, whose business activities just might be throwing the English-Spain politics off-balance. In a parallel story that doesn't take too long to weave into Brett's, English Red-Cross nurse is looking for evidence that her old boyfriend (ANOTHER old school friend of Brett's) may have survived the bloody battlefields of the Jarama.
I've somehow found myself reading a lot of stories recently about World War II, but in this book the history which I was embarrassed NOT to know was the Spanish Civil War. I'm sure I read a few paragraphs about it during high school, but -- well, my excuse is that I took two years of Advanced Placement American History, so I skipped World History. (My bet is that I *still* wouldn't have learned anything about the Spanish Civil War and Franco -- every teacher was ready to fast-forward to World War II. I wonder if English students have a different emphasis.)
Anyway, Sansom did his usual good job of creating characters, place, and history. He certainly fulfilled my expectation that he could take a not-overreported time of history and bring it to life. And overall I did care what happened. However, there were times when I felt as though I was pushing myself to finish this novel, rather than having it drag me from page to page the way that I'm used to Sansom's books do... and I'm not quite sure why. I like the characters. I may not adore them, but I like them. And I did want to find out how the story turned out. But somehow the sparkle in this book is just a BIT less bright than the other series. That may be my fault, however; I'm not sure you'll feel the same way.