Lush in setting, restrained but ultimately satisfying in emotion, this book takes readers from the hunger and poverty of 1930s Madrid to the whitewashed streets of Morocco, then on to the opulence of fashionable life during World War Two Spain and Portugal.
First published in Spain as El Tiempo entre Costuras (The Time Between Seams) in 2009, and now translated into English, this book has been widely praised, sold bucket-loads, and is in production as a Spanish TV series.
It tells the story of Sira Quiroga of Madrid, an apprentice seamstress who falls in love with a con man and is abandoned, penniless and accused of crime, in Tangier in 1935. Sira’s design and sewing skills allow her to build a new life, and she rises further through friendship with one of her wealthy clients — Rosalinda Powell Fox, a real-life (and larger than life) character, later to be suspected by Franco of spying for the British.
This introduction of ‘real characters’, all vital to the storyline, is a masterstroke by author Maria Duenas, a Spanish academic. She places Sira among men who were major power-players of the period: Juan Luis Beigbeder (Powell Fox’s lover and briefly Foreign Minister under Franco), Ramon Serrano Suner (Franco’s brother-in-law) and Alan Hillgarth (British intelligence services). These relationships sweep her into a new and dangerous life as a spy, keeping tabs on Franco’s government and the Spanish and Portuguese capitalists who colluded with and profited from the Nazi war effort.
Sira’s story touches on the immense suffering of the Spanish people during and after the civil war, but her own life moves between the hotels, casinos and cocktail parties of her wealthy clients, gathering information that her sewing skills allow her to transmit in a unique fashion.
Every stage of Sira’s story involves struggle, but when she moves deeper into danger the tension tightens, and we know that although Sira never existed, the dangers that Duenas writes of did — real lives, real courage, lived not so long ago but now largely forgotten. For me, that is the potency of the story: Sira may never have existed, but her equivalents did. And I take off my hat to them.