Set in the mid-18th century in Spain, this thick historical novel, about 740 pages, is currently a bestseller in Spain (at least in the paperback list of the fnac.es site). It is the third novel for Falcones, a Barcelona lawyer. One does wonder when he finds the time to research and write these sagas if he is still practicing as a lawyer… Actually he says he writes in the morning and still spends half the day in the office. He prefers to keep working to stay in touch with the real problems of real people.
There are four major characters than one follows throughout this novel:
1. Milagros Vega, a young gypsy from the Seville area, gets caught up in both personal troubles and historical events that shatter her family. In the mid-18th century, the king of Spain essentially outlawed being a gypsy, rounding up entire families, sending the men and boys over 7 into work camps and women to jails, all with horrendous living conditions from which many did not survive. By some turn of luck, Milagros escapes the deportations and later reunites with her father upon his liberation. Her mother remains imprisoned and her father marries Milagros to the son of a rival family. Milagros, who is a good singer and dancer, is exploited by her in-laws, who keep the proceeds of the many performances she gives. She is later approached to join a theater in Madrid and the little family moves there. Once in Madrid, Pedro, the husband, continues cheating on his wife and profiting from her talents, singing her up for private performances in the home of rich Madrid citizens. This eventually degenerates into sexual exploitation that I will not detail here.
2. Melchor Vega, Milagros’ grand-father, is an old wily tobacco smuggler who also escapes the round-up and deportation as he was in hiding in the mountain recovering from a stabbing wound received in a fight with a rival smuggler who had stolen some merchandise from him. He is very skillful with a knife.
3. Caridad is a young freed slave from Cuba, who was born in Africa and taken to Cuba as a young girl. She was freed when her master took ill on the ship from Cuba to Spain. She landed in Cadiz and did not know what to do. The ship’s chaplain recommended that the make her way to the Seville area, put her on a boat to that city and gave some directions to follow to find a monastery that might assist her. Once in the Seville area, she did not find the help she sought but is offered a place to sleep by Melchor. She later becomes friends with Milagros although this friendship was fraught with difficulties.
4. Fray Joaquín was a young dynamic priest who was known in the gypsy community near Seville. He was involved in the processing of smuggled tobacco and therefore was known to the other three characters already described. At some point, he disappears… but he reappears to save Milagros from her husband’s murderous intents.
Well, all of those characters do at some point disappear from each others’ lives… to reappear in sometimes unexpected circumstances.
Falcones can spin a good yarn, the story is well constructed, and there are lots of details of everyday life which I find quite interesting. The only downside for me is the amount of the sensationalist approach to describing sexual molestations, which might endear him to some readers but not me. While in the end that is not what I most remembered from his first two novels, I might hesitate getting into a fourth one.
While the point may be that the lives of women of the time was very different from ours, that they did not enjoy a status of equality with men, that their lives were not so highly valued, that they not protected by the law, there may have other, more elegant approaches to describing this state of affairs.
The book ends with an 8-page note from the author on the historical background for his story.
Falcones, Ildefonso, La reina descalza, Vintage Español, Nueva York, 2013.