The Seamstress by María Dueñas
This tale of espionage, high intrigue, fear, dishonour and love has catapulted María Dueñas, a debut author to the top of Spain’s bestseller lists.
I was intrigued to read this novel partly because I wanted to know how a relatively unknown writer can hit the jackpot with a first novel. The answer lies in Dueñas’ combination of many elements that appeal to a broad base of readers.
The novel weighs in at 600 pages, but draws you in with romance, strong storytelling, wonderful descriptions of Madrid and Tangiers where the action takes place in the 1930s and 1940s. Most of all, it’s an easy read, great for holidays or as an escape from the boredom of daily life.
Dueñas’ choice of a seamstress as the novel’s protagonist offers depth and symbolism. Sewing is the ultimate sign of femininity. Sedentary and passive, it was traditionally done by respectable women in the safe environment of the home. And yet Dueñas, a Spanish academic and professor, turns this female ideal on its head.
The characters have depth and are well-drawn, especially the heroine Sira Quiroga. Her early life and training seems to point to a career following her mother’s, who is also a seamstress. The young Sira is a dutiful daughter who is destined to marry a dependable, if slightly dull man.
But life doesn’t always turn out the way we would have it, and Dueñas’ writing powerfully and amusingly describes how the young woman is swept away by a tall, dark stranger and leaves respectability behind her.
But as with many a fallen woman, she is left penniless and abandoned in Algiers and has to rebuild her life. Ironically, the old adage of whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, applies here and Sira finds herself even more successful than if she had stayed in Madrid, as a much sought-after couture designer.
The tempo of the book turns up a notch again, as the seamstress embarks upon a double life as a spy, passing on information to the British Secret Service from her German Nazi clients through a code stitched into the hems of her dresses.
The action moves seamlessly from location to location, and we are with Sira at every turn of her life, in the various stages of misfortune, fortune, love and despair. The pace of the book makes it ideal for a film adaptation; there’s good changes of pace, great locations and at the heart of it a love story, not just in the romantic sense, but also for one’s country, clothes and career.
The Seamstress is out in hardback, published by Viking.