Jessica Knauss's Reviews > The Time in Between

The Time in Between by María Dueñas
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Nov 18, 11

Read in October, 2011

Every once in a while, a long novel takes me on an emotional roller coaster, and I enjoy every minute. The Time in Between by María Dueñas is one of those novels. On only page 142, the main character can summarize her life thus: "I'd stopped being a humble dressmaker and transformed myself successively into a whole heap of different women. A civil service candidate, heiress of a major industrialist, globe-trotting lover to a scoundrel, hopeful aspirant to run an Argentine company, frustrated mother of an unborn child, a woman suspected of fraud and theft in debt up to her eyebrows, and a gunrunner camouflaged as an innocent local woman." As I progressed through the years and extraordinary events in the main character Sira's timeline, I would blithely update anyone who would listen about what kind of mess or adventure she'd stumbled into now.

Sira is an ordinary girl with whom the reader can sympathize strongly, but she comes of age in a turbulent time and place: Spain in the 1930's. From her humble perspective, her only talent is sewing. She is distracted from her calling by a man who unwittingly sets the stage for her to regain her financial security and self esteem by becoming the most fashionable seamstress in Tetouan in Spanish Morocco. There, she meets rich and posh clientele and becomes friends with the lover of the most important man in the Spanish Protectorate, Colonel Beigbeder. Through plausible vicissitudes, her friends rescue her mother from war-torn Madrid, only to send Sira back there in the guise of a Moroccan seamstress who encodes messages about her Nazi customers to British Secret Intelligence in her dress patterns. Surprise visits from her past launch her into her most dangerous mission yet, where she can prove her abilities as a spy. The mission reunites her with the Englishman she loves, but can't allow herself to trust with her secret life.

Sira's naivete throughout most of the first part is not only accurate for her historical context, but also allowed Dueñas to insert just the right balance of that historical context for the reader without ever being dry or overbearing. Overall, it's a balanced, factual approach while still showing the way the events may have impacted the lives of real people. The one place it goes wrong is around Chapter 35, when the narrative gets away from Sira to detail the anguish of Beigbeder when he returns to a not-so-friendly Madrid. This could have been handled differently or taken out all together without taking away from information necessary to understand the story.

I would have liked to read this in the original Spanish, but the translation is well done. Only occasionally did it seem a little too literal, and with so much going on, that sin was easy to overlook. The character Rosalinda Fox's multilingual mishmash presents a special challenge to the translator and Daniel Hahn does a decent job scrambling languages while making her dialogue intelligible to the reader.

The original title, El tiempo entre costuras (literally, "The Time Between Stitches") is more relatable to the story. The reader in English doesn't find out what The Time in Between refers to until the very last line. While the end of the book is a relevant reflection of what has gone before, I can't help thinking there must be a more catchy title to go with this amazing journey.

The cover from the Advanced Reader's Copy I received, which I believe was created especially for the book, beautifully captures Sira in one of those quiet but life-changing moments she has so often throughout the narrative, complete with her antique scissors and a view of Spanish Morocco in the 1930's out her window. In contrast, new, official cover is based on a painting done long before the book was published. Overall, the book is gorgeously designed, with Moroccan postcards on the endpapers and photos of emblematic monuments from the most important city in each part at the beginning of the section. It's a great investment in an object that is both history and literature embodied.
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