The Time in Between // by Maria Duenas


//published 2009//

So quite a while back I came to an embarrassing realization: I had literally no idea what Spain was doing during World War II.  And, as I explored that question, I came across another bit of history I didn’t realize had happened – Spain had a huge, violent, still-divisive-to-this-day civil war in the 1930’s, which only goes to prove that I’m really not that great at history.  Anyway, at the time, I read a really good book on the Spanish civil war called The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution & Revenge by Paul Preston.  It’s been a few years since I read it, but a lot of the high points have stuck with me, as it was genuinely quite fascinating.

The Time in Between is a historical fiction novel set in and around Spain in the 1930s and 40s.  Our story is told by Sira Quiroga, a quiet, controlled voice who reflects back on her life through these pages.  Sira spends a few chapters on her early life and background: the only child of a single mother, no knowledge of who her father is, an apprentice dressmaker following in her mother’s footsteps.  Sira makes a big mistake by running away with a dashing young man who convinces her to leave behind all she knows in Madrid – including her mother and fiancee – to start a new life with him in Morocco.  Of course the young man turns out to be a cad who steals everything she has and basely abandons her.  The rest of our story follows Sira as she builds a new life – and identity – for herself in Morocco and beyond.

If you read the dust jacket flap summary, it tells us that Sira becomes a spy for the British during World War II, and I think that I went into this book thinking that that would be the bulk of the story.  However, that part doesn’t really come into play until maybe two-thirds of the way through the book.  This definitely isn’t a spy novel: it is simply the story of a woman, and part of her story was being a spy.

I really, really enjoyed this book a great deal.  I frequently have trouble with books that have “A NOVEL” on the front, as they tend to be needlessly dire and depressing, but despite the very real troubles Sira faced, the book avoided becoming maudlin.  While Sira is no Pollyanna, she still works hard to provide for herself and those she loves, and I really admired her for that.  The story was not fast-paced, but it very rarely bogged down, and, on the whole, kept my attention for the entirety of its 600-odd pages.

The weirdest thing that happened in this book was this bizarre switch around the middle of the book.  Until this point, Sira has told us about her own life first, and about the political situation in Spain/Morocco/Europe as it directly impacts her.  But suddenly, for two or three chapters, she launches into this rather strange overview of the political situation and main players in Spain, including a lot of personal insider information.  At the very end of this section, she tells us that she got this information from a friend’s letters, which made it make sense, but I spent those chapters wondering what in the world was going on, as Sira was telling me a bunch of stuff that there is no way she could have known.  It really seemed like the section could have been prefaced with the fact that the information was from the friend’s letters or, even better, eliminated completely as they had minimal information that actually had a bearing on the story.

Even though I really wanted to, I couldn’t quite get behind the love story part of this book.  Honestly, the only reason I knew who the love interest even was was because I skipped to the very end of the book to make sure that the author wasn’t planning to kill off absolutely everyone in Sira’s life.  (I very, very rarely read the end of the book ahead, but I have been brutally scarred by novels of this type before, and I really didn’t want to invest 600 pages and then find out that Sira’s business failed, her house burned down, her mother got raped and murdered, and Sira was sold into slavery, all in the last chapter as some kind of poetic justice.)  Anyway, point is, we know this guy for several chapters and it isn’t until he’s leaving that Sira’s like, “Yeah, wow, I really love that guy.  Oh well.”  Like she presents it as her being so wounded by the bad guy who abandoned her that she was unwilling to allow herself to fall in love, but it really came across as a completely unconvincing love story.  When she runs into this guy a few years later, I don’t really get her passionate need to make sure he’s safe.  I don’t have anything against the guy, I just wasn’t convinced that Sira really loved him.

However, I did feel that Duenas did friendship really well in this story.  Sira’s friendship with Rosalinda is really well done.  (Another situation where I kept waiting for Rosalinda to actually turn out to be a terrible person and betray Sira, but she didn’t because Rosalinda is actually a really lovely person.)  I liked watching their relationship develop.

It sounds absurd for a novel of this length, but honestly my biggest beef with this book was that it felt like it ended really abruptly.  Sira finally seemed to be finding her feet with this whole spy-thing, and then she was just like, “yeah and so we just kept on keeping on, good times” and that was the end.  Considering she’s writing all this as a looking-back thing, it would have been nice to have a little “I’m writing this while my 17 grandchildren play out in the yard and later I’m walking across the street for tea with Rosalinda” kind of thing, but there is basically no closure.  It’s not really like anything is left hanging, it’s just that it feels like the story just… stops.  As though it could have ended at any one of several points in the book, and I’m not sure why the author chose this particular one.

Overall though, I definitely recommend this book.  Except for those few random chapters, Duenas works the history into the story really seamlessly, giving us glimpses of Spain, Morocco, and Europe that were really quite fascinating.  The translation, by the way, was faultless.  If I hadn’t known that this book wasn’t originally written in English, I never would have guessed it.  The language is beautiful.

Although it’s a long one, this is a classic historical fiction novel: a well-researched backdrop, a likable – and relatable – narrator, wonderfully drawn secondary characters, and steady pacing.  Recommended.  4/5.