The Barefoot Queen by Ildefonso Falcones

Review published on June 16, 2015.Reviewed by sara garland

It’s hard to believe this is only Falcones’ third book given that he writes with a wonderful, engaging discourse, seemingly beautifully researched and depicted in a stunning Spanish setting. As a consequence I would acknowledge that this has also been translated well.

It is 1748 in Seville at a time when Spain is at war with England. It starts in the port of Cadiz. Caridad is a tall, strong, attractive Cuban slave on the naval ship, the Queen. It has shored up and is laden with stock from India.

A man shouts “Enjoy your freedom, Negress!” This a liberty that has befallen her following the death of her master Don Jose Hidalgo during the voyage. Whether this is a good thing remains to be seen as Caridad knows not how to fend for herself. She has arrived in a foreign country vulnerable and without money. The ship’s chaplain took responsibility for Caridad whilst upon the ship, but now needs to direct her to seek work in Seville as a free woman. To start with he sends her in the direction of a convent.

Triana is an area in Seville populated with gypsies. Milagros is a 14 year old girl living with her parents and grandfather, Melchor. She is on a journey of self discovery. She is beautiful and alluring, but more naive than she realises and consequently unwilling to hear the advice her wise and strong mother attempts to impose upon her.

Melchor comes across Caridad after she has been turned away from the convent, having been raped and prostituted by some local potters. She is feverish and in need of water. Recollecting times of when he experienced a similar fate whilst at sea, he takes her under his wing and protection and returns to the gypsy camp with Caridad in tow.

Caridad turns heads with her stature, voluptuous figure and very black skin. The gypsies know not why she has been brought to live amongst them and not all welcome it, but they respect the wishes of Melchor, given he is an elder.

Milagros has a kind and generous heart and warms to Caridad and a friendship begins to bud. Caridad, so used to being subservient, is unable to look people in the eye. Able only to obey and immobilised by her shyness, she finds she clams up and often cannot answer questions levelled at her, such is her level of fear and distress. But it soon transpires that she has a skill, having been a slave on a plantation, and is excellent at recognising tobacco, where it has come from and rolling cigars – something that makes her useful to the gypsy people. And so she is able to earn her keep and remain as safe as could be expected given her circumstances.

Come 1749 there is a massive Seville raid whereby around 130 gypsy families get arrested. Men, women and children are separated and kept in different locations across Spain. An act that has a significant financial implication, given that such people needed to be fed and watered.

The key characters having converged and met, in this story consequences have their lives (and what small amounts of happiness experienced) torn apart. What transpires is an intelligent read about the most heart breaking struggles of marginalised people who suffer beyond expectations. Such people are immensely strong and principled and the book deftly captures and recalls what prevails for these characters in an engaging way. Amidst all this, there is still colour, flamboyance and an engrossing portrayal of Spain and what influenced it during this period of time. A detailed but exceptional book, that offers something really quite different.

Sara Garland

The Barefoot Queen by Ildefonso Falcones is published in pbk by Black Swan, 4th June, 2015

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