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Carpe Librum

Bookish conversation with author Samantha Wilcoxson.


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Historical Novel Society

Winter in Madrid by CJ Sansom

Winter in Madrid - C.J. Sansom

CJ Sansom is among my favorite writers, particularly for his unparalleled creation of Matthew Shardlake, who I've talked about so much my husband thought he was a real person. I started this book with some trepidation, however, wondering how I would feel about a non-Shardlake Sansom novel.


The Madrid that Sansom transports the reader to is that of poverty and political struggle following Spain's Civil War and during World War II. The landscape, complex history, and attitudes of the times are used to paint a 1940s Madrid just as expertly as he does Tudor England. Not having much prior knowledge of the specific events portrayed in this novel, I can say that Sansom provides enough fact to please purists without confusing those who are just looking for a good story.


A twisted, if somewhat predictable, plot brings together three men under unlikely circumstances. Harry, the main character, is a somewhat stereotypical Englishman of the time trying to 'do the done thing.' When his time in the military ends due to injuries sustained, he is uncertain what to do with himself that will allow him to believe he is doing his part. This problem is solved when British Intelligence sends him to Madrid as a poorly prepared spy helping to keep Spain from joining the Germans against the Allies.


Harry is sent to spy on Sandy Forsyth, a man who Harry seems as uncertain about as an adult as he was when they were young men at snooty public school together. The suave Forsyth is also a somewhat boilerplate character. Self absorbed, but easy going until he thinks he's being crossed.


The third schoolmate is Bernie, who everyone thinks died in Spain during the Civil War. When the woman who was in love with him finds out that he is actually wasting away in a POW camp, she is ready to move heaven and earth to save him. The only problem? Everyone believes she is Sandy's wife.


There's a lot going on to make this a great story but never an amazing one. If I had to pinpoint what was missing, I'd have to say it was Matthew. Alright, not Matthew precisely, but a character that I cared about as deeply as Sansom's beloved hunchback lawyer. In the most dramatic moment of the book, I realized that I didn't particularly care which of those involved lived or died. Harry came close to inspiring my sympathy a few times, but couldn't quite get there. The romance he was involved in was unconvincing, and in the end Harry was a disappointment. 


The setting is atmospheric. Nobody can create another time and place like CJ Sansom. I just wish there had been a protagonist that I could cheer for.


I read this as the monthly selection of More Historical than Fiction. Join us!