The title itself suggests a place at odds with itself. Madrid should be a place of sunlight and siestas and a certain effortless luxury.
It seems appropriate then that this unseen side of Spain should form the backdrop for one of the unseen dramas of WWII. At the mention of that defining conflict, the Anglo-Saxon imagination leaps to the Battle of Britain, ‘our finest hour’. That saga, however, is almost completely absent from Sansom’s narrative.
Yet the novel does not concern itself with evoking the Spanish consciousness, and instead uses it as a blank slate upon which it projects British concerns and sees how they play out. The main strands of pre-war British thought are present in the form of Bernie Piper, staunch class warrior and Communist, Harry Brett, awkward champion of the ruling classes, Sandy Forsy, the ruthless capitalist, and Babara, compassionate paragon of femininity.
Apart from the smattering of Spanish words and place names there is nothing that really transports the reader, apart from the opening chapter, a superb and compelling piece of writing. The piece as a whole is largely successful in crossing time and place, taking in Rookwood (a fictional public school), London, Cambridge, the heady days of Socialist Madrid and the grinding tyranny following the Fascist takeover. Each setting has its ideological point to prove; at first Sansom seems to idealize Rookwood, only to reveal that its money came from the slave trade.
While Sansom does claim that if he could be any historical figure it would be Clement Atlee, he is also keen to stress the limits of Socialism. The Spanish Civil war is presented as a human tragedy rather than the triumph of evil. Sansom has created not only a historical meditation but also a compelling spy thriller with a cast of interesting, although not fully fleshed out, characters.
However, if you are looking for a flavour of Spain you will be surprised to find an unexpected, if not exotic, taste in your mouth.