Originally posted Feb 20, 2009
Reviewed for Front Street Reviews
I began reading Winter in Madrid with the idea of a mystery and found it difficult to follow in those terms. Once I started reading the book as a historical novel, it began to really take form. C.J. Sansom has done an excellent job of relating conditions in Spain through the 1930s and 40s.
The Spanish Civil War has just ended and Hitler is preparing to move into Spain in WWII. A young man from Britain, survivor of the Dunkirk fiasco, finds himself heading to Spain as a spy. He is very uncomfortable with this assignment because the person he is to spy on was once his friend. Harry was chosen for two reasons, one, that he had already been active in the war and two, he had been a school- and room-mate of the person he is asked to spy on.
Three boys at public school in England, through the wonders of coincidence in life, have all become entrenched in Spain in various capacities. Bernie, the Communist, friend of Harry’s; Harry, raised by his aunt and uncle - a Colonel; and Sandy, the discontent son of clergy and somewhat subversive by nature.
From the historical perspective, the book features post-monarchist Spain; first the Civil War which put Franco in power, followed by WWII and the concerns of whether Franco will ally himself with Hitler. Spain is devastated in the Civil War and the inroads being made by Stalin and by Hitler along Spain’s borders puts the country in extreme poverty, famine and desperation. This is the background into which Harry has arrived at the Spanish Embassy for training to spy on Sandy. Harry finds himself much more involved than he ever expected once he gets to Spain. Having been there in 1931 with Bernie, he is overwhelmed by the change. This becomes even more convoluted when he happens to meet up with a fellow Briton, Barbara, who he remembers as Bernie’s girlfriend on a trip Harry took to Spain in 1936 to find out if Bernie is alive, a trip taken on at the request of Bernie’s parents. Now, in 1940, it seems that they are all about to be drawn in together.
Written in three parts, Autumn, The Beginning of Winter, and Deep Cold, this could as easily be representing the degrees of involvement as describing the time of year and weather. Sansom weaves with great texture the stories of not just the three schoolmates or the two wars, but the several people who play well-defined roles in and out of the schoolmates’ lives. Vividly depicting the chaos, the strengths and weaknesses of the people, the determination to stay alive in the city of Madrid, and in the prison camps, this is what makes the book flow. Though at times jumping back into the time of the Civil War, then returning to the possibility of Spain joining Hitler’s war can be a bit unsettling at times, it does work out. The final part of the book becomes much faster moving with lots of action. Though there are some slower parts in the beginning while the background is being set, the rest of the book and the ending are well worth the read. Definitely recommended to war aficionados, Spanish mid-20th century history, romance and intrigue.