by Nick Padron
The Exhumation is mainly set over three days during Autumn 1937 in war-torn Madrid. The Jordan family have tasked the maverick Major Williamson and his interpreter, Fernando (“John”) Marcos to exhume the body of their relative, Robert Jordan and return him to the States for proper burial. Although not without risk, the Major views the mission as fairly routine. He could not be more wrong…
From the opening chapters, it’s evident that The Exhumation is an engrossing, accomplished, and supremely interesting novel and this is firmly consolidated by the end of the book. It neatly and cleverly segues from For Whom the Bell Tolls without being a Hemingway pastiche or imitation.
Make absolutely no mistake, Nick Padron is an excellent writer and more than capably continues the story of Robert Jordan but, that being said, you do not need to have foreknowledge of FWTBT; this novel stands alone and is an excellent read. For those readers who are familiar with Hemingway, there are, however, a few delicate references woven through the story.
This is a book to get involved in and it massively rewards the reader. Written in first person from John’s perspective, it gives a sense of immediacy both in terms of the action and the accompanying emotion. Context is deftly encompassed without the prose becoming dry, and it would be easy to underestimate the wealth of research and detail; the blending of history and fiction is effortlessly compelling.
John is a complicated, likeable character. As honest as he can be in the circumstances, wearily accepting of events, and cynically experienced yet controlled, with hidden emotional depth, and a well-shielded vulnerability that occasionally breaks through the rigid self-discipline. He expresses some profound observations on life and his position within it, and is entirely credible.
The Major is a great portrayal and Mr Padron manages to avoid him becoming prototypical. He is more complex than he first belies, and the dynamic between himself and John is appealing and intriguing and causes John internal conflict on more than one occasion. Larger than life and with dialogue that is authentic and amusing, you cannot help but admire the Major despite his moral lassitude and elasticity, which, in the theatre of war, can possibly be forgiven and certainly understood.
Indeed, the dialogue throughout The Exhumation is realistically robust and the entire cast are brilliantly depicted from bar owner, Jose, to the pijo mechanic, Carlos. Mr Padron has carefully crafted lovely little nuances of personality and physicality to really bring the characters fully to life.
Technically, the novel is faultlessly edited, and it’s easy to overlook not only the easy switches in Spanish language and dialect, but also the geographical knowledge of Madrid. It’s all seamlessly integrated and complementary to the plot.
However, at the heart of The Exhumation, as with FHTBT, there is an all-consuming love story. The relationship between John and Maripaz is beautifully depicted; subtle, sensuous yet shot through with a sense of foreboding and unspoken intensity. She is wonderfully realized, and her delicately accented speech complements her beguiling appearance.
The Exhumation is a work of historical fiction but equally straddles action, suspense, and war thriller. There are some immensely gripping and tense passages. Everything is paced perfectly, and the reader given just a hint of foreshadowing to keep the pages turning.
The Exhumation is a masterly and powerful novel that is intelligent, thought-provoking, and incredibly well-written. Highly recommended.