By Ildefonso Falcones
Reviewed by Elaine Simpson-Long
I was sent a copy of Cathedral of the Sea for review at Christmas time, but its 650+ pages and door stop size daunted me somewhat so I left it in my To be Read pile for a bit.
I picked it up a week or so ago and started to read and was immediately captivated. It had to be my reading-at-home-in-the-evening book as it just could not come on the commute; my arms would have been two inches longer by the time I carried this, plus all the other paraphernalia I cart backwards and forwards each day, but this week I gave in and took it with me on the train as I was enjoying it so much and could not wait to finish it.
This is a stonking good read. One of those huge, sprawling, historical epics full of colourful characters, glorious settings--in this case 14th century Barcelona--cruelty, lust, witchcraft and, just to make it even more exciting, the Spanish Inquisition. As I am visiting Barcelona this week and going to see Don Carlos, with its auto da fe and Spanish Inquisition scene, at the Royal Opera at the end of June, this piqued my interest even more.
Bernat and his son Arnau are two serfs who are on the run from the tyrannical rule of their feudal lord, who had raped Bernat's wife and stole his lands. They came to Barcelona where, if they lived for a year and a day, they could become free men and took refuge with Bernat's sister and her husband, neither of whom were happy to have them there. Arnau is a lonely child and one day comes across the church of Santa Maria in which is a statue of the Virgin of the Sea who he adopts as his mother. It is in this church and its surroundings that he receives friendship and love, growing up in its environs and becoming a bastaix, one of a band of men who carry the stone for the building of the new church from the local quarry and who are treated with respect by the citizens of the city.
To give you even a truncated version of the story of Cathedral of the Sea would still mean a mighty long review, so all I will say is that Arnau's journey from slave to nobleman is a fascinating one. He becomes rich and influential after catching the king's eye because of his courage in battle and is married to the king's niece Eleonore, who he does not love. His new found wealth and position, though justly earned, excites the jealousy of those who resent his rise and who begin to plot against him, bringing him into eventual conflict with the dreaded Spanish Inquisition.
What I love about historical novels is that they are always full of colour. Sometimes when I read contemporary fiction it appears to me in black and white, or pale colours. I know that sounds a bit eccentric but there it is, whereas books such as this one teem with vivid glorious shades of gold, amber, turquoise and purple, you can feel the heat of the sun, envisage the blue of the sea and the sky and almost warm yourself while you are reading. The language seems richer and vivid even when describing something as simple as different coins, the words just roll off the tongue:
"...the ones the Muslims use; bezants, mazmudinas, and gold bezants......French tournois, Castillian gold doblas, the gold florins struck in Florence and those minted in Genoa, ducats from Venice... reales from Valencia and Mallorcae, the gros from Montpelier."
And the clothes:
"He donned white sleevelss shirt made of hte finest Malines cloth trimmed with fur, a red silk damascene doublet came to his knees....black hose and black silk shoes. He fastened the doublet round his waist with a wide belt that had gold threads and was studded with pearls........then a marvellous black cloak...lined with ermine and embroidered with gold and precious stones."
Quite often with books I am sent to review, when I have read them I pass them on to others to read and enjoy, but not this one. This is staying firmly on my bookshelves.