The Secret Music at Tordesillas by Marjorie Sandor

Disclosure: I was sent a copy of this book by the author in exchange for my honest review.


Marjorie Sandor (author of the lovely essay “Rhapsody in Green“) shines a light on the Spanish Inquisition through the voice and music of one man with her historical novel The Secret Music at Tordesillas. It is 1555, and the Spanish Queen Juana I of Castile, also known as Juana (or Joan) the Mad, has just died at Tordesillas following forty-seven years of gentile captivity. One of the handful of musicians employed for her entertainment is the elderly Juan de Granada, who chose not to leave the palace when the rest of Juana’s retinue did; instead, he remains to be questioned by inquisitors, firstly over the fact that he is not at church. The novel is told in his first-person perspective as he recounts his life for a very specific audience, the commissioner and scribe sent to investigate rumors of a secret Jew at Tordesillas. This choice of narrative voice and audience is the first interesting move by Sandor to bring her subject to light. The ways in which Juan aims to ingratiate himself serve to characterize and set the tone; we are always clear on who holds the power in this transaction.

Juan’s story begins by cycling back to 1492, when the Jewish quarter of Granada was conquered and cleared out, and ten-year-old Juan was baptized. He relates how his family and neighborhood were torn apart and forced to assimilate, how he escaped, and how he came to be a part of Infanta Juana’s household as a small boy. Clutching his father’s oud (“that antiquated ‘lute’ of the Moors”) and already well trained in music, he is lucky to continue his musical education and play for royalty. He travels with Juana to Flanders for her wedding to Archduke Philippe, and then back to Spain; he is rarely away from her, in fact, in all his years. And therefore he is frequently with Inés de Castro as well, one of Juana’s most trusted ladies, and a central figure in Juan’s long life.

The old man sits for hours spinning his story for the commissioner and the scribe; there is a hint of Arabian nights in the way he holds his audience, both those two in the book and us, the readers. Between the times he brings us back to his immediate situation – under threat of the suspicion of his inquisitors – we get lost in the story, the present tense of young boy and then young man and then maturity. Juan and Inés, and others, walk a fine line between dangerous secret Jewish traditions and outward propriety. Numerous cultural, musical, and culinary details mark this tightrope.

I confess I was often confused. Better familiarity with this period in history and Spanish and Jewish cultures would have made me a much better reader for this novel. Perhaps I’m unusually ignorant of this material; if you’re like me in that regard, be prepared to keep close track of the details, and perhaps to do a little research as you go.

One of the first things I notice about Sandor’s writing is its lyricism, which is fitting since this is a novel about music and the appreciation of music. I was unfamiliar as well with the implications of musical instruments and styles, but didn’t feel troubled about that; the way Juan talks about his family background and the significance of music was effective and affecting. It was often a lovely story to get lost in, even if I sometimes missed a cue. It is also, of course, a disturbing story. “You know how vigilant the pious are. It is their duty to keep an eye on us all.”

It has been a theme for a few reviews now that I’ve gotten a bit bogged down in the middle of a book. Especially after a few such experiences in a row, I guess this is likely to be at least as much about me as about the books in question. This story is both lovely and absorbing; I don’t know what to say about my small struggles. Perhaps because of my unfamiliarity with the historical period, I was not the perfect audience. There is always so much more to learn!


Rating: 7 lemons.

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