As anyone who has been blown away by a novel like Jennifer Egan's A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD can attest, there's something to be said for experimental form, nonlinear narratives, and creatively postmodern methods of storytelling. Nevertheless, every once in a while, nothing beats a good old-fashioned blockbuster of a story, the kind of novel you can just imagine being made into a BBC miniseries, complete with colorful scenery and fabulous costumes.
"THE TIME IN BETWEEN is not only a well-researched historical work of fiction; it's the kind of novel that speaks to our most fundamental desires for a great story, masterfully told."
It's definitely not hard to picture THE TIME IN BETWEEN, Maria Duenas's debut novel, being made into this kind of cinematic saga --- the costumes, in particular, given that the book is focused in large part on fashion and dressmaking. Certainly Duenas's detailed descriptions of the glamorous gowns created by her main character, Sira Quiroga, offer a particularly vivid glimpse into the world Sira inhabits: Spanish Morocco during the 1930s and 1940s. But they also contribute to the portrayal of a young woman gaining confidence and capability by virtue of her own talent and determination, as well as to a surprising narrative about espionage and subversion in the time of war.
Near the beginning of THE TIME IN BETWEEN, it seems unlikely that Sira will amount to anything. Seduced by Ramiro, a charismatic typewriter salesman, she follows him from Madrid on the cusp of civil war to Tangiers in Morocco, her suitcase stuffed with an unexpected windfall of cash and jewels from her long-estranged father. After Ramiro abandons her and makes off with all her worldly goods, Sira knows no one and fears that she has lost everything, including her close relationship with her mother, who remains unreachable in an increasingly dangerous Madrid.
It turns out, of course, that she hasn't lost everything. Bolstered by an unexpected (and probably illegal) investment that she has to secure by becoming an unlikely gun runner, Sira soon rediscovers her skill for dressmaking that her mother fostered back in Madrid, and thereby begins to rediscover herself: "I never could have imagined that the feeling of a needle between my fingers would be so pleasing… The satisfaction of sewing again was so pleasing that for a couple of hours I was taken back to happier times and managed temporarily to dissolve the leaden weight of my own miseries. It was like being back home."
Before long, Sira has established herself as the premiere couturier to the many wealthy European expatriates who have flooded into the Spanish Protectorate during the lead-up to World War II. As she circulates through this diverse and often secretive company --- many of whom meet socially in Morocco despite growing tensions between their countries back home --- Sira finds herself able to use her sewing skills in a new and surprising way, as an agent of espionage for the Allied forces during the war.
Romantic, sweeping and passionate about both its setting and its protagonist, THE TIME IN BETWEEN is a thoroughly absorbing novel about a place and period in history that will be unfamiliar to many American readers. Duenas helpfully includes an author's note about the fact and fiction of her book, as well as a bibliography for readers whose interest in this area is sparked by this fictional treatment. Elegantly translated from the Spanish by Daniel Hahn, THE TIME IN BETWEEN is not only a well-researched historical work of fiction; it's the kind of novel that speaks to our most fundamental desires for a great story, masterfully told.