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Thursday, 31 July 2014

‘The Siege’ by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson,
29 August 2013.
ISBN: 978-0297864332

This story is set in Cadiz, 1811, at the height of the Napoleonic Wars.  The Spanish king and his court have fled to South America.  The French troops have swept across Spain, so that Cadiz is jostling with refugees, but they’re unable to capture the city.  Instead, they’re bombarding it with cannons, and blockading its port, in spite of Wellington approaching from on land, and the British fleet harrying it by sea.  Now, tension in the city is stretched to breaking point by a series of gruesome murders: young girls flayed to death ...

It took me a while to get into this large novel – large both in its canvas and in words, at 560 pages of the larger size of paperback.  The prose is densely textured, so you can’t easily skim-read.  There is a huge cast of characters, apparently unrelated, and you meet most of them in the first chapter – and because they are all Spanish or French, the names aren’t easily familiar to British ears.  I had to keep flicking back to the maps at the front to keep track of where I was, because Cadiz too was a character in the story.  There were times when I needed more information about Spain at that time – about the Regency in Brazil, for example, and I feel some of the detail of walk-on characters could have been pruned.

However once I’d got used to writing style and grasped the main characters, I was totally drawn in.  I felt as though I was living through the siege with the characters – the fear, the hunger, the pretence of normality when a bomb might kill you at any moment.  We moved from high-life at the theatre to low in the taverns, from policeman to spy, from Spanish lines to French.  I loved the scenes at sea, which were very vividly done.  I felt I came to know the characters:  Dona Lolita, heiress and director of the shipping firm Palma y Hijos, the corsair Pepe Lobo with his troubled past, and his vividly-imagined tubercular lieutenant, the French artilleryman Desfosseux who drowned thoughts of his wife and home by concentrating on trajectories, the taxidermist and spy Fumegal.  Most of all we moved in the shifting world of the policeman, Rogelio Tizon, brute, bully, dreamer.

The research for this novel must have taken years – reading every daily paper for those months, for a start.  This is more novel than crime story, with the murders being a strand in a much larger story, and it’s a challenging read – but well worth the effort.  If you want something that will engross you wholly in another world, try this.
Reviewer: Marsali Taylor

Arturo Perez-Reverte was born 25 November 1951 in  Cartagena, He is a Spanish Novelist and journalist.. He worked as a war correspondent for  RTVE and was a war correspondent for twenty one years (1973–1994). His first novel, El húsar, set in the Napoleonic Wars, was released in 1986. He is well known outside Spain for his "Alatriste " series of novels. He is now a member of the Royal Spanish Academy, a position he has held since 12 June 2003.


Marsali Taylor grew up near Edinburgh, and came to Shetland as a newly-qualified teacher. She is currently a part-time teacher on Shetland's scenic west side, living with her husband and two Shetland ponies. Marsali is a qualified STGA tourist-guide who is fascinated by history, and has published plays in Shetland's distinctive dialect, as well as a history of women's suffrage in Shetland. She's also a keen sailor who enjoys exploring in her own 8m yacht, and an active member of her local drama group.  Marsali also does a regular monthly column for the Mystery People e-zine.

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