The Barefoot Queen, by Ildefonso Falcones

The Barefoot Queen

Caridad, Melchor Vega, Ana Vega, and Milagros Carmona all seem to have nothing but bad luck. That or author Falcones likes nothing better than to create characters and then torture them for almost 700 pages. As The Barefoot Queen rolls along, there is poverty, injustice, imprisonment, slavery, rape, and murder. It’s a wonder that anyone survives what Falcones puts his characters through.

The Barefoot Queen opens in 1748 as Caridad arrives in Seville after the man who owned her died on the sea voyage from Cuba. Everyone tells her she’s free, but what’s freedom to Caridad when she has no money and no one will help her find her way? After a few false starts with uncharitable Christian organizations, Caridad meets Melchor Vega as she’s about to give up and starve to death. Melchor is enchanted with her mournful singing and takes her home to his family. Melchor Vega has always been the embodiment of a gypsy. He’s known to wander. When he wanders away after delivering Caridad to his daughter, Ana, and granddaughter, Milagros, Caridad is once again left to fend for herself. Her knowledge of tobacco and cigar-making come in handy and help her make a meager living.

Life bumbles along for the quartet until a decree comes down from the king that all gypsies are to be rounded up and imprisoned. Milagros, Melchor, and Caridad escape, but are separated. Ana is captured and sent to Málaga with thousands of other gypsy women. Over the next several years, she suffers hunger and humiliation and torture. Meanwhile, Caridad runs afoul of the law and is also imprisoned for two years. Melchor travels the length and breadth of Spain to seek revenge on a man who assaulted Caridad and stole from him before launching an ill-starred quest to free his daughter. Milagros does get to marry the man she thinks she loves before learning just how much of a villain his is and suffering terrible exploitation.

As Falcones spins his tale, he treats us  to short essays about why the gypsies were rounded up, Spanish court manners, the tobacco industry of mid-eighteenth century Spain, and other topics. It does make for dry reading and lengthens an already long book. There is no over-arching plot to The Barefoot Queen. I would have described the book as picaresque if anything funny had happened. (It does not.) If there is a tragic version of picaresque, I would use that word instead. Bad things just keep happening to our quartet of protagonists, truly awful things. There are themes that keep this book tied together. Falcones uses his characters to explore what freedom means, what a person can live with and what they can’t, how the law can be deformed by money and religion, and forgiveness. Still, The Barefoot Queen is an arduous read.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 25 November 2014. 

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