REVIEW: THE SEAMSTRESS BY MARIA DUENAS

SEAMSTRESS, THE
Author: Maria Duenas
Picador RRP $32.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

The SeamstressIn the previous few months I’d slammed the door on my entire yesterday.

I love this quote – it struck a chord in me because it’s such a neat and visual way to describe ‘putting one’s past behind them’. The Seamstress, titled The Time in Between in the US, is a story in which the protagonist, Sira Quiroga, tries to close the door on a painful past, but finds that the past is a necessary part of her journey. Her past is part of who she is and the woman she becomes.

The story begins in 1935; underneath a post-war glamour, Europe is bubbling with uncertainty and turmoil. The political climate mirrors the turmoil in Sira’s mind. The man she is engaged to, Ignacio, has her on a pedestal: “I was his sky and his stars, the most beautiful and the best.” Not wanting to disappoint her mother, who brought her up singly, Sira goes along with wedding plans and Ignacio’s plan that she, like him, complete her Civil Service exam rather than continue her work as a seamstress. “The old world of fabric and backstitches had been toppled and a new universe was opening its doors to us,” Sira tells the reader.

But Sira doesn’t love Ignacio and she is easily seduced by the charming Ramiro. Leaving her mother behind in Spain, Sira moves to Morocco with Ramiro, amid promises that he has their interests at heart and a business venture under way. Predictably, she soon finds that his words were like smoke on the wind; before long he abandons her, leaving her pregnant, penniless and in trouble with the law. With a debt to pay and the police watching, Sira draws on her skills as a seamstress; she soon learns that her talent for dressmaking will do far more than save her back – it may also influence the course of a war.

The story weaves through the haute couture ateliers of old Madrid, the exotic souqs of Morocco and high society in Lisbon. The storyline is intense, drawing on politics, history, espionage, betrayal and love to create a compelling read that is hard to put down. Told in the first-person, the reader is swept along for Siri’s journey, but more as a detached or interested observer, rather than an emotionally invested one.

Sira is a wonderful character. Although she does come across as rather detached (it’s as if she’s remembering long ago events with calm reason more than emotion), I was really drawn to her. Initially she comes across as naive – the mistakes she makes early in the book are so obvious that I wanted to shake her and say, “This is not going to work out the way you think it is” or more sagely, “Be careful who you spend your time with”. However, she learns from her experiences and becomes a much more guarded woman, one who pushes love and the thought of it far from her thoughts. Her need to be someone else, to put the naive Sira behind her, leads to a a strong character who outshines all the other characters in the book – this really is her story. The final line of the book confirms that.

The story flows beautifully, sweeping readers along in a tide of tension. Author Maria Duenas is a gifted storyteller who describes her scenes with careful detail, creating an authentic sense of place. I felt this most strongly when Sira plods through the souq in disguise; with danger all around, she notes architectural features, smells and sounds that transport you to that place. I also like the analogy between the seamstress (covering the body with clothes) and Sira’s espionage work (covering her real self with disguise). To me, it makes the Australian title fit better.

At times bleak, others optimistic, this is a satisfying and excellent read. The ending is satisfying but almost anti-climactic … I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to Sira just yet. I’m interested to hear what others feel about the ending.

Available from good bookstores and Pan Macmillan. This copy was courtesy of Pan Macmillan.

Bookish treat: Churros – with chocolate dipping sauce, of course. But keep it under your hat. Top secret.