I really enjoyed Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas when I read it several years ago, so I jumped at the chance to preview the English translation of The Siege. Unfortunately, time was not on my side so what was supposed to be a preview is now a review. The Siege weaves together several narratives, all centered in and around Cádiz during the French siege of the city from 1810 to 1812. Espionage, murder, war, loyalty, and business all come together as Pérez-Reverte paints several detailed portraits of a city and its citizens under siege.
Soldiers, corsairs, policemen, and everyday citizens who at first glance appear to be connected only by the city they inhabit (or propose to occupy) turn out to have a far more sinister connection, as a murderer strikes with a precision and violence as devastating as the French bombs that slowly gain in accuracy and range. Comisario Tizón tests the limits of his own sanity in his protracted battle to catch a man butchering young women. Lolita Palma, a single woman who took over the family’s shipping and lending business after the deaths of both her father and brother, overcomes her initial objections to invest in a corsair ship and finds an odd kindred spirit in the ship’s captain, Pépé Lobo. French artillery officer, Simon Desfosseux, must reconcile his superiors’ demands that he shell further into Cádiz with their refusal to give him the equipment he deems necessary for such a feat.
The amount of detail that fills the pages of The Siege is astounding. The handful of characters the narrative follows come from vastly different backgrounds and professions, each of which is deftly presented with the appropriate vocabulary. What blurs and distorts the image is the far more vague presentation of the passage of time. Looking up the history of the siege, it’s possible to get that two and a half years pass during the course of the novel, but the time between incidents within the book is far harder to pin down. Sometimes when the narrative focus shifts from one character to the next within a chapter, no time at all has passed; other times, several weeks or even a month has transpired.
While everyone will have certain characters they identify with and storylines they’re more invested in, for the most part they’re all compelling seeing them gradually overlap and intertwine more and more drives the novel. There are certain characters whose shares of the narrative drop off and are never picked up again (I mostly would have liked just one more passage from Gregorio Fumagal in the latter half of the book but his very creepy perspective is unceremoniously abandoned). Additionally, I don’t think the epilogue was necessary. It served no narrative purpose that I could tell accept to undermine some of what was built up for two of my favorite characters (and in particular, the only female character who got any real page time). The ambiguity of where things left off for each of them prior to the epilogue was more than enough.
From what I’ve read of Arturo Pérez-Reverte, he can write very intricate and complex narratives, but they drag on a little too long and the resolution tends to lack the finesse of the rest of the work and The Siege is no exception. Read his work for the compelling journey, not the destination (the Comisario’s struggle to catch the serial killer is enough for me as a fan of Criminal Minds and other crime procedurals).