Atria Books, 2011

The Time In Between is essential reading for those who thought that reading about the Spanish Civil War meant Hemingway and Orwell.

In her lush and sprawling novel, María Dueñas presents the era via the perspective of  “an independent woman in difficult times”.

There was no room for a seamstress like Sira in the traditional tales of  Hemingway and Orwell, but it’s impossible to imagine The Time In Between without her.

(Want to know more? The author discusses how she created her in this video from Simon & Schuster online.)

Another stand-out element of the novel, beyond the main character, is the setting; the author deliberately sets a portion of the novel against the backdrop of the legendary hotels of Morocco, aiming to “provide the story with particular magic”.

And it is magical. Though it does not occupy as much of the novel as one would guess, from either the dust jacket or the endpapers.

The jacket copy summarizes The Time In Between in three paragraphs, but the first two paragraphs — describing Sira as a young girl and a young woman in Morocco — represent only 100 pages of the novel.

The reader has only brief glimpses of Sira as a young girl and teenager, so it’s hard to be sympathetic with the decisions that she makes. It’s hard to connect with a character who, after only a few chapters, has been left disconnected from everything that she once knew, in the wake of a betrayal that any reader could anticipate even without the assistance of the jacket description.

But this is not a storytelling style in which the reader is immersed. Even before readers have absorbed that first 100 pages, it is clear that María Dueñas’ style situates the reader in the audience, apart.

The reader is on the margins, a listener not a participant; the reader simply follows Sira’s story as she sees fit to share it:

“Over the years there have been many times when my destiny has delivered me unexpected moments, unforeseen twists and turns that I’ve had to handle on the fly as they appeared. Occasionally I was ready for them; very often I wasn’t. Never, however, was I so aware of entering a new stage as I was that afternoon in October when I finally dared to cross the threshold and my steps sounded hollowly in the unfurnished apartment. Behind me was a complicated past, and in front of me, like an omen, I could see a space opening out, a great empty space that time would take care of filling up. But with what?  With things, and affections. With moments, sensations, and people: with life.”

Her style is similar to that of Carlos Ruiz Zafón, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Isabel Allende.

Some might call it full-bodied and dramatic; others might call it wordy and excessive.

(Once I began to impose the cadence of their speech onto the narrative, to slow my reading and take time to hear the words, I began to enjoy the novel a great deal more; I did not settle into the delivery style right away.)

Regardless, even impatient readers (who are not *so* impatient as to have set it aside before hand) may find their interest secured at the halfway mark — about 300 pages into the novel — when the action shifts.

With the  introduction of two characters drawn from life to play substantial roles in the narrative, there is a greater emphasis on the historical elements of the novel and tension steadily builds as the world-wide tensions intensify.

Including “real” characters, like Juan Luis Beigbeder y Atienza and Rosalinda Fox — both key players — adds an element of curiosity to the story and prepares the reader for engagement at a deeper level.

More characters are introduced, and the stakes are raised. Suddenly elements that seemed melodramatic earlier in the novel have a context; they are situated against a new backdrop.

Snapped on the chaos that is my desk

One character muses:

“When my arrest is over? How should I know, it could last years – I might never get out of it alive. The situation is very uncertain; I don’t even know what charges they’re going to bring against me. Revolt, espionage, treason against the fatherland: any outrageous thing.”

And, so, of course the reader’s investment escalates in the presence of espionage.

María Dueñas explains in an interview that she did not research WWII espionage; she read novels and watched movies to learn “the tricks of that world”.

The reader never feels overwhelmed by the intricacies of this aspect of the novel; the way in which Sira is involved suits her character, and the skill set she possesses and develops is organic and believable.

In an interview with Félix J Palma, María Dueñas discusses what sets this book apart from other WWII dramas:

“WWII took place when Spain was immersed in post-Civil War reconstruction so many people think that the war had no effect on Spain. But this is not true. Our territory was coveted by Britain and Germany, and there was a lot of espionage in the country at that time. I also added a new ingredient to the traditional view of this period by incorporating a female character into the war game. I think the combination of both these things–an unexplored environment and a new type of heroine–is what sets The Time In Between apart.”

In many ways, The Time In Between is a familiar tale — history, romance and intrigue — but the fabric of María Dueñas’ storytelling sets it apart.

Have you read it, or do you think you’d like to? (Browse Inside at Simon & Schuster.)

PS The Spanish title is El Tiempo Entre Costuras, which means “the time between the stitches”: isn’t that lovely? The translator is Daniel Hahn.