On my Kindle, during the month of October, I’ve been reading Havana Sleeping by Martin Davies, also author of The Conjuror’s Bird, The Unicorn Road and The Year After. (The links go to my blog reviews of those books. The first title I read before my blogging days.)
This novel “of espionage, love and murder” (as the cover says) is set in Havana in the 1850’s. It is a fictional novel but based on some real events. The author’s notes on the historical background can be found in an afterword. They contain certain spoilers though, so on the whole I think I have to agree with the editor’s note (at the beginning) that they are best left till the end. (Which I did, even if there were times during the reading that I felt tempted…)
As in his earlier books, I find Davies very good at creating images of the past, and making the reader feel as if we were there, watching. However, with this novel I have to admit I found it hard to get “involved”, and to keep track of the male characters involved in this novel – like who is working for whom, in what capacity and even their nationality. The women in the story on the other hand are very few, and only one of them, a mulatta by name of Leonarda, really stands out as a main character. But even her role in among all these men is not easy to pin down – as she does not really fit into any accepted social patterns of her own time, but seems to move freely in and out of them as she pleases.
Looking back at the whole novel now, it hits me that in trying to express my frustration and confusion about the characters keeping to escape me (not to mention the whole mess of 1850’s English-American-Spanish-Cuban politics), I think I may actually have caught the very essence of it. This is not a story told from a clear black-or-white angle. (Which also makes Leonarda just the right person to lead us through it.) It may start out as a rather conventional murder mystery (which may lure us into also expecting a traditional ending) – but it turns out way more complicated than that. The whole novel is full of “red herrings” – just as politics and espionage tend to be…
My Kindle as usual asked me for a star rating when I reached the end. Hesitating between 3 and 4 (out of 5), I decided on 4, because I can’t get away from a feeling that the book is probably cleverer than I am. Whether in the long run it will turn out to have left a lasting impression – well, only time will be able to tell, when enough of it has passed! With ‘The Year After’ (the year after what?), I had to go back to my review now to remember what it was about. ‘The Conjuror’s Bird’ and ‘The Unicorn Road’ on the other hand - those titles immediately bring back impressions, even if not all the details. I suspect that with ‘Havana Sleeping’, the title itself may be a strong enough clue to conjure up images as well – even if I’ll probably soon forget names and who was who and played which part in the puzzle.
“In all his years in the Foreign Office, [he] had never been abroad. The realities of foreign postings were new to him, and evidently more complicated than he had anticipated.”
“She recognised them instantly. They were the friends she had grown up with, each of them exactly as she remembered. She knew them by the patterns of fading on their bindings, by their thumbed decreptitude, by the familiar rips and tatters on their spines. --- Memories so strong she felt the stirring of tears.”
“You don’t become a spy all at once. You don’t sign the articles. You probably don’t even know it’s happening.”