Fantastic slow-burn historical spy novel revolving around three men who attended the same school and end up embroiled in the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath.
The characters pull you in from the start, even the seemingly bland main protagonist Harry Brett, an Everyman persuaded into spying on his old school friend Sandy Forsyth – not for the first time. The British fear Forsyth is on the verge of finding enough gold to fund Spain into the war on the Axis side and want to either sabotage the project or entice Sandy into the service.
I love how Sansom pulls you into the grim city and plays with your political affiliations. When you’re with Bernie, you’re a communist. When you’re with Sandy, you’re a pragmatist taking opportunities under any regime. And when you’re with Harry and Barbara, you see both sides’ flaws. Sansom’s writing is subtle enough to persuade you in all directions without battering you over the head with politics. You will come to view the Republic as a painful lost chance in the history of Europe, destroyed not just by the Fascists and Monarchists, but also the communists.
Strong women complement the bumbling and deeply flawed male protagonists: Sofia, who burns to take any revenge on Franco’s regime, and is fiercely loyal to her loves; and Barbara, an Englishwoman lost in Spain’s contradictions, who finds her purpose and stability in fighting for the man she loves.
The story unfolds from a number of perspectives, all united in portraying Madrid as a scowling city divided by the triumphant pressing down on a cowed working and middle class populace whose Republic lays shattered around them.
The plot is slow-paced, and some readers might lose patience, especially with the ending. But the deep characters and rich setting keep you on the page until the climax forces sweat from your palms.
A great read.
Note: Image taken from Goodreads