The Seamstress ~ Frances de Pontes Peebles

One of the things that I love the most about reading historical fiction is visiting places and times that I may never have to opportunity to otherwise experience. The Seamstress is one of those novels that have the ability to transport you to another time and place. The story takes place in north-eastern Brazil in the late 1920s and the early 1930s—a time that was corrupt and harsh. There was no authoritative centralized government—the power resided with the wealthy landowners, the Colonels, who ruled their territory as they saw fit. The story takes place during a period of political revolution where the government began to take the power away from the Colonels; this did not just change the political climate but it also threw the country into total chaos.

The two sisters could not be more different. Emília has high aspirations for her life; she dreams of romance, the latest fashions and leaving her simple country life to become a Dona in the city of Recife. Luzia is the complete opposite of her sister; she knows that the fantasy life that her sister dreams of is not for her. Due to a childhood accident, Luzia’s left arm is permanently disabled. She rebels against society and sees no future for herself until the Hawk and his band of cangaciersos take her from her home.

The Seamstress is Frances de Pontes Peebles debut novel and the winner of Elle Magazine’s Fiction Grand Prix 2008. I have to say that I was thoroughly impressed and want to read more from her! This is the first historical novel that I have read featured in South America, and it didn’t hurt that it took place in my favourite South American country (and one which I am dying to visit!). The amount of research is phenomenal—clearly the author spent a lot of time digging in Brazil’s history. Frances de Pontes Peebles created a page turning story with memorable and life-like characters. The amount of detail is extraordinary, from the scrublands to the houses, to the culture and lifestyle, to the characters themselves.

The novel itself flip-flops between the lives of the two sisters. The book has extremely long chapters, each one focusing on one of the sisters’ lives. Thankfully each chapter was broken down into sub-chapters providing the reader with a place to pause in the story (and if you’re like me, you have to stop at the end of a chapter) without having to read a full 100 pages to get to the end of the chapter. One of the few problems that I had with this novel was the prologue—I found that it gave away too much of the story before you really got into it, I felt like I knew the basic plot before the story began. The book is quite long however, my edition was 641 pages long, so by the time you get to the end of the story you have forgotten the prologue. Another small issue that I had with the novel was the language. While I like the fact that the author chose to incorporate the Portuguese language in names, it wasn’t totally consistent, for example the Hawk and Little Ear . . . I don’t think these are Portuguese names. Finally, I found some of the political talk in the novel tedious to get through and to be honest I skimmed some paragraphs when it came to the political parts.

Overall I really enjoyed this novel and I am excited to see what Frances de Pontes Peebles comes up with next. Hopefully she stays in South America as I find that this is an area that is looked over when it comes to historical fiction and I am certain that there are many great stories hidden within its borders.

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