Book Review: The Time in Between, Maria Duenas

the time in betweenMaria Duenas’s The Time in Between has a fantastic premise–a dressmaker who escapes from Franco’s Spain is recruited to be an English spy–and, from what I can tell, is deeply researched. The problem is the main character, who is buffeted by political and personal currents she doesn’t and chooses not to understand, and undergoes a maturation from naive young girl to self-assured spy that takes place almost exclusively through a wardrobe upgrade. As far as character arcs go that’s good enough, but it does mean that she spends most of her time in the book insisting that she can’t possibly do the thing that she then goes on to do. 

She also seems unable to make decisions for herself. Here’s a typical example:

“But for that we had to wait a few weeks yet, or six or seven. And over that time, things happened that–yet again–transformed the course of my life forever.”

“Things happen” to Sira; she doesn’t make them happen. There’s a rather obvious analogy being drawn here between sewing and nation-building: stitching together fabric into a dress, stitching together shifting alliances into a nation, and so forth, which works reasonably well except that, by this logic, Sira is the one being dressed rather than the one making the dresses. When we get to the end and find her resolving “to stop going blindly down the paths that other people had set for me”, we wonder why that’s not the book Duenas wrote.

(I say “we” but really I mean “I”–this book has been a bestseller in Spain, has a miniseries on Hulu, and seems to be a runaway hit on Amazon. YMMV.)

What made the book interesting to me was Duenas’s choice to repeatedly skip over large chunks of story. More than once, the I-narrator (Sira) will jump ahead a few days or even weeks in the story, sometimes then giving us the backstory and then sometimes not. Since the book is already quite long, the point of these gaps is probably in part to hurry along to the more exciting sequences, like a truly nerve-wracking trip to sell illegal guns or the escape from some assassins on a train–Duenas is excellent at creating tension–but the effect is curious given the book’s title. In fact, we continually skip over the time in between, which are the moments when Sira actually makes decisions, like the choice to accept a spy mission that propels the narrative forward once again.

In other words, we skip over the actions that bring the story into being, which I think is what gives the narrative its somewhat distanced feeling of retrospection. It’s more of a historical than an individual voice, one that suggests we can’t ever quite plumb the personal choices that bring the historical into being. The time in between is both the time that matters and the time that, to this narrator, is non-narratable–which is, perhaps, the difference between history and historical fiction, and why The Time in Between is uncomfortably poised between both.  

Other Reviews

  • Kirkus, which calls it a Horatio Alger story wrapped in a lace mantilla, which I think is inaccurate–the primary feature of a Horatio Alger story is will and conviction, both of which Sira seems to lack
  • Publisher’s Weekly, calling Duenas a writer to watch–probably true; this book hits all the right book-club notes and I would definitely recommend it to a certain type of reader
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