Cathedral of the Sea by Ildefonso Falcones
There are lots of good things about Cathedral of the Sea: It's engaging, but not engrossing, readable and atmospheric, creating a sense of medieval Spain, and Barcelona in particular, with the first few chapters, a sense which is sustained to final page. But there are lots of bad things about this book too which, for me, detracted so much from the reading experience as to undermine the whole.
The narrative is plot driven, relating the life story of Arnau, son of a runaway serf made good, but the detailed descriptions of battles in particular and the lecture-like accounts of Spanish histories which pepper the novel are so turgid that the plot falls flat at times. Most of the characters are so under-developed that at times it is hard to understand their motivations or emotions, and Arnau, the central character, who is likeable enough, seems to suffer from having things done to him rather than having any sense of taking control, or responsibility, for his own life: strange in one who's professed desires include freedom and justice. While the author is at pains to display his intimate knowledge of medieval Barcelona, he seems to know very little of ways in which the renaissance, the reformation or industrialisation have changed the human psyche. Thus, we seem to have a series of characters who, with the exception of Arnau, seem more like 21st century inhabiting a time past, rather than being part of the fabric of their context.
And yet, and yet, the relationship which Arnau forges with the Cathedral of the Sea - the church of Santa Maria de lar Mer, the building of which takes place during his lifetime, is fascinating - and even more so is the range of emotions he feels towards the Virgin of Sea who becomes his mother, his guide, his strength and his inspiration. And this is the real meat of the novel - delectable and nourishing. Shame there wasn't quite enough of it to mask the taste of the turgid narrative.