The Seamstress, by Maria Duenas

Article published on May 13, 2012.

If you are reading this, then there is a good chance you read a lot. And if you are a true bookgeek, you’ll know that every once in a while a book comes along that is hard to forget; one you will be likely to read over and over again. The Seamstress is one of those books.

If I were to write the plot (don’t worry – no spoilers here!) of The Seamstress down for you in a matter of fact way, it would sound bizarre. But it doesn’t feel at all bizarre when you read it. The way the story is woven with such care and detail means that the plot never becomes unbelievable. Every page of the book is written with exceptional care that is not over-done but just the right amount to really make it hard to put down. The storytelling draws you in and it is truly hard to escape.

The Seamstress takes you from the cobbled streets of Madrid to the warm climate of Africa, and Morocco to Lisbon. The novel, split into four parts, is an account of the long journey the main character, Sira Quiroga takes through the years. It begins with twelve-year-old Sira’s humble beginnings in Spain, sweeping the floors where her single mother works as a dressmaker. She admires and envies the rich and wealth citizens of Madrid, peering through shop windows to stare at the glittering chandeliers and expensive furniture. As she grows up, she learns the art of being a seamstress and finds happiness with a man ready to settle down. With her life mapped out for her, Sira is thrown into disarray when she falls passionately in love… but not with the man she is engaged to be married to. Sira abandons her soon-to-be husband to face an uncertain life in Morocco. This sounds like enough to fill a whole book, but it all takes place in only the first few chapters, and there is still plenty left for Sira to deal with. I think that the length of the book is a major plus point to the novel as a whole. The key is that The Seamstress is not rushed. Duenas is in no hurry to reach a certain point, and the reader is in no rush to finish the book – I know I wasn’t!

The narrative is first-person, told from the view-point of Sira, which really shows the depth of her character. She is a very likable characters, who is not unfeeling, for better or worse. It is easy to sympathise with Sira and to feel empathy towards her and the difficult situations she finds herself in.

The Seamstress has the advantage of many additional characters which are actually likable. This came as a surprise to me, after reading many books in which minor characters are used to simply fill a gap. In The Seamstress every character has their own various backgrounds, personalities and likable elements; they are handled well and always have a purpose, never becoming boring or annoying. And still the story doesn’t stray from Sira.
Among other things, war is a prominent theme towards the end book, which again changes the course of Sira’s life. She is taken to Nazi-friendly Spain, where she forges a new identity for herself becoming a popular designer for the socialite wives of the German Nazi officers. But her innocent work as a seamstress soon becomes her cover for another, far more serious job. It is with this hidden agenda that leads Sira to come into contact with people of vast significance in the political world; characters based on real-world people. I won’t say who and why but they do have a vital role to play in the book.

Despite all these good point, there is only one thing that holds whole novel together, and that is the consistently excellent writing. Originally written in Spanish, I also want to point out that the translation by Daniel Hahn is perfectly done.

Previously published as The Time in Between in the US, The Seamstress was a multi-million-copy international bestseller and I would be surprised if the reception isn’t the same in the UK. This is Spanish author Maria Duenas’ debut novel, and if it is anything to go by the future can only hold many good things for her. I will be sure to keep my eyes peeled for her next novel. The Seamstress is an absolutely superb novel and the best book I have read in a very long time. Even if you usually shy away from longer books, this is one I promise you won’t regret buying.

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