Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Barefoot Queen by Ildefonso Falcones, a dark portrayal of 18th-century gypsy life

In Falcones’ newest historical epic, set mostly in Andalusia in the mid-eighteenth century, expressions of cultural pride, artistic exuberance, and unlikely love are enclosed within a dark, research-heavy tale of persecution and blood vengeance.

After her former master dies while en route from Havana, Caridad arrives alone in Spain, clearly unused to her new freedom. Her ebony skin quickly attracts unwelcome attention, but she is rescued by Melchor Vega, a Gypsy who draws her into his world of tobacco smuggling in Seville’s Triana district, where she befriends his feisty teenage granddaughter, Milagros. “She sings with the same pain,” Melchor notes, recognizing Caridad as a fellow outcast. The detonation of long-standing family rivalries and a royal mandate demanding the Gypsies’ arrest lead to long separations and heartache as they struggle for their liberty.

Caridad and Milagros are robust characters, both resilient and sensual yet equally powerless in their male-dominated country. Exciting in places, slow and meandering in others, this lengthy novel demands commitment, but its multifaceted look at Gypsy life and morality is vivid and memorable.

The Barefoot Queen will be published by Crown this week in hardcover ($28, 640pp).  Mara Faye Lethem translated it from the original Spanish.  This review first appeared in Booklist's October 15th issue. 

This was the first of Falcones' novels I've read, so I don't have firsthand knowledge of how typical his tone and themes are here (can anyone comment?). There were many segments of dry history, and it was also extremely dark; in particular, the brutal treatment the women experience made it hard to read in places, even though it didn't feel unrealistic for the time and place.  I did appreciate learning about a culture that was new to me, though.

I had just 175 words to encapsulate my thoughts; for additional and more detailed viewpoints, check out Tara's review/rant at Book Babe and Mystica's review at Musings from Sri Lanka.

15 comments:

  1. I loved this emotional read. Finished it in one go

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Glad to see you found it so compelling. Thanks for your review.

      Delete
  2. This sounds refreshing and is different from what I usually read! Plus, it's set in Spain. Adding it to my TBR list.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's different from most other historical novels I've read. I often look for settings that are less familiar since I don't like reading the same thing all the time. Hope you enjoy it.

      Delete
  3. I'm interested in reading this one! Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I read his CATHEDRAL OF THE SEA and don't remember it being overly dark. He definitely doesn't sugarcoat the harsher aspects of history, though.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've had a copy of Cathedral of the Sea on my shelves for a few years - the setting really interested me. The publisher seemed to be promoting it at the time to be another Pillars of the Earth (the cover is similar, too). I do appreciate realism in my fiction, but this novel made me very glad I wasn't a woman (especially from a persecuted ethnic group) living in 18th-century Spain!

      Delete
  4. Falcones' novels to date have been fascinating, but can seem rather unremittingly dark in tone and often violent and misogynistic. Probably not for those who prefer their novels on the HEA side :) The lot of women, in particular, is grim, but Falcones' portrayal feels right for the times and places in which he sets his stories - he doesn't do any massaging to suit modern sensibilities.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. For that reason, I think many readers who pick up this book expecting it to be a more typical "women triumphing against the odds in historical times" story will be surprised. Now, there are some strong women in this book - Milagros' mother, Ana, is one who deserves to be recognized, too - but the barriers against them are so strong that their determination doesn't get them much of anywhere.

      Delete
  5. I read Cathedral of the Sea a couple years ago, and it was one of my 5 star reads that year. In my review I wrote "This is everything I love about historical novels and family sagas: big, sweeping, panoramic, enough history to understand the context, enough detail to put me in that time and place, characters that I care about, a little romance, a lot of adventure, and a satisfying ending." Yes, there were a lot of historical asides, but I really didn't mind them. It all contributed to my knowledge of the time and place. I can't wait to read this one!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's good to hear! I pulled my copy of Cathedral off the shelf last night and was reminded of why I picked it up in the first place - I'll try to get to it sooner rather than later. This is just my initial impression, but it didn't seem as dense as Barefoot Queen - which took me two full weeks to read. I'd really be interested to hear what you think of this one when you get a chance to read it.

      Delete
  6. Is there anything in the novel that indicates - predicts the coming of Flamanco?

    1748 was pretty early for wide-spread slavery in Cuba. It wasn't until England ruled it for a while in the 1760's and introduced sugar and its technology that the Caribbean plantation system arrived in Cuba, along with with the associated massive importation of Africans.

    As Cuba was the last place in the New World to start this, it was almost the last to give it up -- only Brasil was later. The U.S. was third last on the list to give up slavery, and it took a massive civil war to do so. However, before, during and after financial and mercantile interests gathered vast wealth from providing African slaves to Cuba.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Re: Flamenco, yes, it predicts its development. The publisher says that the novel "tells the magnificent story of the birth of Flamenco" but although many of the gypsies (especially Milagros) are talented musicians and dancers, that theme wasn't nearly as strong as I expected. It may be better to say that it depicts the circumstances that gave rise to that form of music and dance.

      Delete
    2. That would be interesting, though my capacity for reading fiction of women being deeply oppressed is just about nil after all the reading about it I've been doing day in and out for the last 5 years, re the slave breeding industry. My nerves have been beaten flat by the non-stop cruelty, brutality and torture.

      Love, C.

      Delete
    3. Very understandable. And given your intense focus on the subject, I think it would be a good decision not to pick this book up right away.

      Delete
  7. The premise is so compelling. That the story should be written by a man, even more-so. Andalusia, so beautiful, and so challenging, over the centuries. The setting will not only lead us, but inform us, I suspect.

    ReplyDelete