SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘Winter in Madrid’ by C J Sansom

Winter in Madrid

1940: The Spanish Civil War is over, and Madrid lies ruined, its people starving, while the Germans continue their relentless march through Europe. Britain now stands alone while General Franco considers whether to abandon neutrality and enter the war.

Into this uncertain world comes Harry Brett: a traumatised veteran of Dunkirk turned reluctant spy for the British Secret Service. Sent to gain the confidence of old schoolfriend Sandy Forsyth, now a shady Madrid businessman, Harry finds himself involved in a dangerous game – and surrounded by memories.

Meanwhile Sandy’s girlfriend, ex-Red Cross nurse Barbara Clare, is engaged on a secret mission of her own – to find her former lover Bernie Piper, a passionate Communist in the International Brigades, who vanished on the bloody battlefields of the Jarama.

A vivid and haunting depiction of wartime Spain, Winter in Madrid is an intimate and compelling tale which offers a remarkable sense of history unfolding, and the profound impact of impossible choices.


I must confess that Winter in Madrid is ‘that’ book for me – the one everyone seems to rave about, but I never ended up reading. I got this book five years ago, but after the first two chapters, put it aside, finding its ‘rich British toff’ language to be tiring. Then my father ‘borrowed’ the book, and I only got it back 18 months ago when he passed away. Still, only now could I push on and finally read.

The first forty or so pages set up the story of Harry Brett, a British war veteran invalided out after Dunkirk. Harry is recruited to be a spy in Madrid, thanks to his Spanish fluency and his connections within a public school upbringing (often called private school in most countries. Rich bratty kids). With all of the snobbish upper class language of Downton Abbey, but with none of the poise, Harry is convinced to fly to Madrid in 1940 and spy on an old school mate, who is claiming to have found gold deposits outside Madrid. If Franco has gold, he will rely less on the frugal aid Britain provides, and will be compelled to ditch their neutrality in the Second World War. Hitler is winning, England is looking weary, and newly fascist Spain could be a threat.

That is where we meet the star of the show – Madrid, 1940. The only word to be used is stark in its portrayal, and rightly so. The author has done an unquestionable job in his research of the time. The lives of those in Madrid are intolerable, and the spirits of the proud people are well and truly starving and crushed by the fascist regime. Slightly annoyingly, the book jumps between time periods, of Harry’s days in his snobby school, 1931 where he and friend Bernie first go to Madrid, and the city is down-trodden but on the verge of change, and 1936, when the war starts, and the souls of the working class are surging with hope. I suppose the schoolyard sections are there to show the life of Harry, his interaction with best buddy Bernie, and that of Sandy Forsyth, the rich brat who had gone to bigger things under Franco. The jumps in time period fill in all the blanks, but it means the book leaps about more often than most stories.

Along the way, we meet Barbara Clare, former lover of Communist Bernie, who spurned his upper-crust lifestyle for new ideals, and was listed as missing presumed killed in Jarama 1937. Barbara fell head over heels but Bernie left her in Madrid to fight on the front lines. Three years on, Barbara has moved on to Sandy, who ‘made her’, as he says in the most rapist-like way when he’s angry. Barbara is difficult to love – she had the courage to be in Spain during the war with the Red Cross, but has been reduced to being a borderline alcoholic, chain-smoking rich housewife (without the ring). She sighs her way through concerts with Franco while wearing fur, while most are freezing. She laments on her misery while living in almost paradise-like surroundings while Madrid languishes with hunger. She can’t get over poor  Bernie, who was never a smart guy but had plenty of good intentions. I rather hoped lung cancer would kick in through all Barbara’s cigarettes and waif-like point-of-view.

Harry pushes on, spying on Sandy and Barbara, meeting many nasty characters under the Franco regime. He attends lavish parties hosted by wartime murderers, but walks the streets of the poor as he remembers Bernie. As the web begins to twist around the characters, Harry meets Sofia in the most unusual circumstances. Sofia has had a tough working class life and is the epitome of the locals in the area. Harry spends more time with her, and finally realises he is sleep-walking through life thanks to his rich, snobbish school education. As the push to uncover Sandy’s gold mine continues, Harry and Barbara each keep a variety of secrets which unthreads their fragile minds and pits their survival against evil characters.

Bernie’s point of view tells the story of a British communist stuck in a concentration camp outside the town of Cuenca, and the harsh conditions imposed. Many people fail to realise the existence of Spanish concentration camps under Franco, never photographed and dismantled completely after use. All these characters conspire against each other and those around them, resulting in a massive twist ending where not everyone survives and all the characters are left with blood on their hands.

I know Madrid well and know Cuenca like the back of my hand, and reading about the places in this time period genuinely interests me. If you know little about the Spanish civil war or the Franco regime, this book will give you a realistic insight. The locations and descriptions are exquisite, and the author’s work on detail and political alliances of the time is stunning. But the conversation, the wealthy British language can be hard to take, leaving the conversations feeling stiff and unfulfilled over endless glasses of whiskey. The book lets down its female characters – Barbara is a flake (maybe weighed down by too many bad Madrid coffees?) and Sofia doesn’t get the prime position she deserves. Harry, the main character of the story, is a nice enough guy, though his fate never concerned me. Sandy is a terrific passive aggressive scumbag and Bernie left me so furious that I threw the book down in anger at the end. Not many books have that effect on me!  But rest assured, you will find yourself reading all the way to the end to see what happens to Harry, Bernie, Barbara, Sofia and Sandy. Whether you hope they live, or die in a fire-ball, is up to you.

My rating – 4/5 stars. Madrid is a scene-stealer and a study of eternal struggle, but those inhabiting her are too weak to challenge her dominance.

2 thoughts on “SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘Winter in Madrid’ by C J Sansom

  1. Caroline

    Hi, read this book a while ago and loved it. I just wondered if you were aware of the Centenary celebrations this year in England for Laurie Lee As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, 1936 Spain and all that. I am publishing my own book on Lee and Spain in which I retrace Lee’s journey down and across Spain on the eve of the civil war. As I Walked Out Through Spain in Search of Laurie Lee comes out in June14- see for a taster of the style of the book. Be happy to send a review copy in the spring. Paul


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