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the daily review, wed., dec. 21

Maria Duenas

Originally published in Spain in 2009, Maria Duenas's novel The Time in Between (translated into English by Daniel Hahn) has now become an international bestseller. The tale of Sira Quiroga, a humble dressmaker from Madrid who eventually becomes a spy for the British, is a detailed, exciting, evocative look at the time before and between the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War.

The novel follows Sira from her early days in Madrid as an impetuous teenager in love with a con man, to Morocco as a bankrupt criminal, to Tetouan as a couturier businesswoman, back to Madrid, and then to Lisbon to spy on the Germans.

Duenas stitches together Sira's world of espionage with her job as a dressmaker. Sira's skills translate into a complex and brilliant way of passing on messages – Morse code done in the sketches of new patterns – stitch lines representing the short and long dashes. Her high fashion sense gives her an in with the wives of the high-ranking German military leaders, and she listens carefully to their gossip as they try on her creations.

It's a perfect set-up, in fact. With her confidence and courage, and her skill creating the fashions of the day, Sira moves freely within this privileged world of the German military in Spain before the Second World War.

The Time in Between includes real-life characters, such as Rosalinda Fox, mistress to Colonel Juan Luis Beigbeder, who became the minister for the exterior in Franco's government. It was speculated that Rosalinda, a British citizen, had great influence over Beigbeder and may have played a role in his support of the British.

Franco later put Beigbeder under house arrest and Rosalinda was suspected of spying for the Allies. The characters of Rosalinda and Beigbeder play large, complicated roles: They befriend Sira and convince her to become a spy. Mixing the non-fictional back-story and setting with the fictional life of Sira makes for a deeper and more detailed novel.

Maria Duenas brings this era to life in her depictions of the fancy hotels, parties and politics, and the life of Morocco, Lisbon and Madrid. A reader becomes part of the world Duenas has revealed. Although the details could have been overwhelming, they are, instead, necessary.

Everything mentioned plays a role in the story. There isn't a moment of reading that seems unnecessary. Mario Vargas Llosa, in the advance praise on the back cover, says that The Time in Between is "a wonderful novel, in the good old tradition." It is the detail, where a trip to the horse races in Madrid can take up 20 pages, that exemplifies this "good old tradition."

Whether it is the patience given to showing the careful stitch work on a tangerine-coloured silk suit, or the traditions of the formal military reception in Tetouan for Franco's brother-in-law, Serrano Suner (also mockingly known as In-law-isimo), or the rapid-fire scene of the near-assassination of Sira as she leaves Lisbon, this is a carefully written and exciting read on a long, quiet weekend (or two).

The Time in Between is a novel that expects you to have time and patience. If you have, you will reap rewards.

Michelle Berry's recent collection of stories, I Still Don't Even Know You , won the Mary Scorer Award for Best Book by a Manitoba publisher, 2011, and was short-listed for the ReLit Award.