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on 15 December 2009
This book is the first part of a trilogy which has just been completed. I came across the author because of a truly wonderful story about his fear of flying in the summer 2009 issue of Granta. More recently, The Economist highly recommended the (third volume of the) trilogy, acknowledging that readers have to cope with several problems.
This first part is a personal and a family history, and a history of the Spanish civil war, by a man endowed with a unique talent. He is able -on the basis of brief encounters (interviews, sometimes observations with only a few words exchanged) -to assess persons, know them better than they know themselves and put his findings on paper, in report form. It is a very rare gift and his talent is turned into employment by a shady agency in London, after his marriage in Madrid breaks up. The agency and the history of his sponsors suggest he is hired to play a role in support of post-Cold War intelligence work. After all, he lived in the UK before he married, lecturing in Oxford, building a network of friends. Interesting!
However, Javier Marias (JM)is his own writer, full of ideas and ambitions beyond a simple spy novel. The way the novel is written has led one reviewer to give up reading well before reaching the half-way point. Why? Most pages are solid blocks of text, indentations are few, white lines absent. Fortunately, the chapters are fairly short. Real dialogues are rare. Usually, one character answers a question and holds forth for pages on end. Such essay-type statements are frequently interrupted by page-long musings by the hero himself, and then the lecturing continues. Is it a book written for women rather than men?
But it is also on occasion a warm, passionate book because of the personal ingredients. His description of the emotions at work during a break-up are unsurpassed: the fury, the incomprehension, the doomed efforts to win back a loved one, the autism received. Same for definitions and examples of betrayal in general. The description of the hero's frenzied midnight search in his mentor's library for details about the Spanish civil war is superb.
After finishing this book, I was in need of something else. But I will read Part Two of JM's trilogy, because he has really made me curious about what happened before and happens next.
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on 12 February 2010
This book appears to be of the "love it or hate it" variety judging from the other reviews. Personally I loved it, and very soon became utterly addicted. I was originally drawn to the series because of the basic premise (and the intriguing title,) and I would probably have settled for a thriller/spy novel along those lines but this is so much more. I found the elliptical style endlessly engaging and the discussions concerning life and relationships, history and observation, thoroughly rewarding. With this in mind, the book could have easily become a sterile intellectual study by someone with their eye on a literary prize but what did surprise me was how very moving it was at times. Marias has an honest and insightful grasp of the often painful nature of life and relationships, and I feel that many readers might identify with some of the 'baggage' of the protagonist. I've just ordered part two and am recommending this to any of my acquaintances who will listen.
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on 18 April 2013
I thought for the first 20 or so pages that I might not complete this book. The sentences are very complex, and it takes some getting used to. When I appreciated that it is a novel to be enjoyed more slowly, not a simple page-turning time killer, then I started to enjoy it. Before I was halfway through I was completely gripped, and the episode when the narrator spends most of a night researching in a library is an thrilling as any other novel I've read. It is a truly magnificent book. It has stayed with me long after I've finished it. I am holding back the pleasure of starting the second volume, which I am really looking forward to, while I fully absorb everything from the first.
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on 19 October 2006
I first heard about the second book in this three part series through a friend whose opinion I trusted. I thought that I should start with the first in the series, Your Face Tomorrow series, Fear and Spear.

It's centred around Jacques Deza, an ex-teacher, broadcaster, and academic who is on the run from a failed marriage and family in Madrid. Jacques is talent spotted by a retired Oxford Don for his unusual talent, for he has the ability to see certain traits in people. From their appearance, mannerisms, from their subtle actions he can see people and understand them; understand them better than they can understand themselves. He is introduced to the mysterious Tupra who puts him to work in interpreting certain individuals - spies, revolutionaries, bad debtors - and in finding out what they will become in the future.

There's no denying it's a useful tool, for what is the novelist doing but interpreting the actions of others? Analysing their feelings and emotions: trying to get to their very core. And this book is well written, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa.

After reading my lukewarm praise the attentive reader is undoubtedly waiting for some sort of qualifier, a but or however. And it's difficult to know where to start because from a very promising opening, full of insight and wit and intrigue, I began to feel the book fall apart in my hands. What started off as sharp observation and shrewd interpretation slowly descended into a tone of over intellectualisation and didacticism. In one particular extract Deza is reading of the Spanish civil war after a dinner party in the Don's house. On a trip to an upstairs library he stumbles across a bloodstain. There then follows a multi-page analysis of the stain, "what is the hardest to get rid of with bloodstains is the rim, the circle, the circumference..." He labours to marry this notion to the idea that we all strive to leave our mark on the world, "to cling on". It is easy to imagine the pitfalls that might befall the intrepid Jacques as he goes to post a letter: `the brackish taste from the stamp on my tongue fading as the letter is transported across the country, the clarity of both fading from my memory and consciousness...'

I would love to tell you more of the book's plot; Jacques goes to work for Tupra and interprets a few characters including a showboating musician and debates whether, and under what circumstances, the man would be capable of murder. And then the book finishes with a weak cliff-hanger, not leaving the reader wanting more, just with the short lasting residue of indifference.

Perhaps the second book in the three part series, which my friend recommended, is worth reading. Perhaps it's sustained by a narrative which holds the attention throughout. I however won't be finding out and nor will I be reading any more of a certain friend's recommendations.
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on 22 August 2010
I have started reading this book twice. The first time I got to about page 34, the second time to somewhere past page 100.

This book has got great reviews from other people, which I respect, but I personally found it extremely slow moving.

Although I read almost to the end of the first part (Fever), I never had the feeling that the story had actually started and eventually I gave up on it.

This book is not for everyone.
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on 22 April 2012
I bought this book second hand and i am glad I did. I would have resented having paid full price for it. Although it has received much praise I cannot add my own. Much as I struggled with Midelemarch despite it being rated as one of the best novels in English literature, I struggled with this one. Readers Digest could have fun with this, bringing the whole book down to fifty pages or so, but then I am sure I have missed the whole point. I thought the story started to pick up at about page 190 but it got dragged down again by interminable digressions. The book is one digression after another, and then digressions within digressions, going on for pages. The hero is an physchologically damaged egotistical introvert who cannot stop himself examining and qualifying every statement or thought he ever has. The subtleties of plot are lost on me. For fascinating flawed characters with a good sense of mystery give me Evelyn Waugh, Stieg Larsson or John La Carre any day. I won't be reading the sequal.
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on 12 August 2011
Marias unpeels every moment, examining it from every angle, exploring all its associated memories, all its biases and promises. A single event can take fifty pages to explore - it's like watching a Grandmaster at chess, or swirling a vintage cognac in a glass. Let it linger on the tongue. Don't hurry it.

The story is half-seen, half-noticed: a man is recruited by an odd organisation to give his opinion on other people who appear for interviews. There is a hint of the diplomatic intrigue behind the scenes and of the main character's personal loss that always affects every judgement.

This is magnificent writing. Marias is destined to win the Nobel Prize before too long.
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on 6 September 2009
Jacques Deza, a Spanish university professor in England is approached by a guy called Tupra. Tupra asks him to watch interrogations and give his opinion about the interrogated person based on their appearance, behavior and answers. Deza doesn't know what outfit Tupra belongs to. This could lead to an interesting book, but the storytelling and the descriptions given by Deza are so detalied and longwinded that I gave up after 150 pages.
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on 25 April 2013
Nothing much happens, but it does so in brilliant, insidious prose. Got to read the rest of the trilogy now.
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on 18 January 2010
As a previous reviewer has said, this book is based on a good central concept, but the execution is very poor. There's reams and reams of waffle in here, plus the dialogue is incredibly stilted and unrealistic. The author is undoubtedly good with words, but not so skilled with sentences, which run on for paragraphs. And then there's the story, or lack of it - very little happens at all. Most of the text is simply sub-6th form philosophising of the after-dinner kind.
Overall, a massive disappointment.
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