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I wasn’t able to see the film version of Red Joan while it was playing at my local indie theater, so when I went to Los Angeles I downloaded the Europa Editions novel by Jennie Rooney. I enjoyed it, although the ending didn’t do much for me. Still, a quick skim of the film reviews indicates the book was better, although Judi Dench gets good reviews for her part as the main character.

Joan is in her 80s, taking ballroom dancing and watercolor classes and enjoying living in England near her son and his family after many years in Australia. In the first few pages of the book, she reads an old friend’s obituary and MI5 agents come to her door to take her away for questioning — not in his death, precisely, but in relation to new evidence they have from a Soviet defector that Joan and her friend were spies.

Joan’s thoughts make it pretty clear — as does the title — that she was. Rooney uses the questioning, which takes place over a few days, as the mechanism for going back to Joan’s youth, her days as a physics student at Cambridge in the late 1930s, and her romance with Leo, a Russian emigre, and friendship with Leo’s cousin, Sonya. The cousins take Joan to communist meetings, which she points out to her interrogators was pretty common in those days; lots of intellectuals in Europe admired, at the very least, theoretical communism, and Stalin’s crimes were not yet fully understood. She never joins the party, even though Leo calls her his “little comrade.” The war comes, Joan decides to do her part, and Leo gets her a job at a metals lab in Cambridge, where she meets Max, the lab director, and an unhappily married man.

As Joan recalls her life, prompted by documents shown to her by the MI5 agents, her son, Nick, who conveniently happens to be a lawyer, finds out she’s a suspect and rushes to help her. As it dawns on him that she really did pass secrets from Britain’s nuclear program he is incensed. This conflict allows Rooney to slowly spin out the story of Joan’s loves and friendships, the way she was manipulated, and the choices she made. I appreciated that she is presented as neither purely a victim nor purely a traitor. For Joan, whose father lost a limb in WWI, and who lived through WWII, nuclear deterrence means peace, while for Nick, it is madness. While much has been made of the fact that Rooney credits a news story about an 87 year old English woman revealed to have been a Soviet spy as inspiration, she says in the author’s note that there is little else her character and the “granny spy” share and that she was also inspired by other historical events and people.

While as I said the ending wasn’t my favorite, overall this was an interesting read. I enjoy historical fiction and I felt like Rooney hit all the right notes. The ideas the characters grapple with are more nuanced than the usual good versus evil that often appears in books set in or after WWII. There is much for a book group to discuss, starting with the fact that Joan acts according to her values, believing that she is “sharing” secrets, not stealing them. I was intrigued enough to want to read late over the weekend to find out what happened.

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I first meant to read The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen when it came out to rave reviews, and then again when The Readers chose it as a book discussion book. What finally got me to move it up to the top of the “to be read” list is that I’m going to hear the author next week. It’s a very powerful read, and a well written book, but it left me with confused feelings. I liked much of it, I learned a great deal about Vietnam and its wars, but the brutality is hard to take (how many times have I said that lately here? I need to read something less appalling, soon!) and very vivid. Chapter 21, in which the main character, The Captain/Sympathizer, is tortured until he recalls in vivid detail a female comrade’s torture, is probably one of the most horrifying depictions of inhumanity I’ve ever read.

That aside, the book is fascinating, and the Captain is an intriguing character. He has two best friends from his school days, one, Man, who is a high ranking communist revolutionary in Vietnam, and the other, Bon, who works with the Captain for a South Vietnamese general and the CIA. So the Captain is the Sympathizer — he sympathizes with communism, to the point of spying for the North, even as he works for the other side. He also admires many things about America and loves and respects both his friends. He’s an orphan, the bastard child of a French priest whose mother was the priest’s maid and had him when she was a young teen, and Man and Bon are family as much as friends to him. The Captain’s outsider status — neither fully American nor Vietnamese, neither fully Occidental or Oriental, neither fully a refugee (legally yes, but he knows California from attending college there) neither fully a soldier nor fully an intellectual, allows him to move within these worlds comfortably as no other character can.

The book begins on the last day before Saigon falls, as the Captain, the General, and their chosen family and associates escape and make their way to America as refugees. It ends with the Captain and Bon in Vietnam as well. In between, we watch the Captain try to adapt to isolation from Man and his comrades, to his refugee status, to his postwar roles serving the General and the CIA and Man, and to his responsibility towards Bon, who has suffered great losses. We also watch his developing realization that post-war Vietnam is not the revolutionary paradise that was promised.

Towards the end of the book, the Captain has wrestled with the meaning of his country’s long struggle against imperialism and is left with questions: “What do those who struggle against power do when they seize power? What does the revolutionary do when the revolution triumphs? Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others? And is it sane or insane to believe, as so many around us apparently do, in nothing?” Just as it’s important to face the brutal inhumanity of warfare (open or covert), it’s important to remember this novel isn’t just about war, but about its aftermath. It’s also a book about love, both philia, or “brotherly” love, and agape, or charity, the love that inspires concern for the greater good of mankind. The Sympathizer is unique in this book because he relates to — sympathizes with, and I’d say loves — everyone who has suffered, even, finally, those he made suffer. That he’s haunted by both innocents and his own loss of innocence makes him a sympathetic character.

Still, this book is not for the faint hearted, and was maybe not the best choice after Evicted, which also describes soul-sapping inhumanity.

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I feel like a bit of a Scrooge when I don’t love a book someone else has recommended to me as wonderful, and even more so when the rest of the book world has mostly raved about it too. Recently I felt that way about All the Light We Cannot See. It’s been a tough winter around here and I’ve been in a slight reading funk — several books I thought I’d like I didn’t even try getting through. But Mr. Mac and Me by Esther Freud was one I was sure I’d like, based on a library colleague’s hearty endorsement in a book chat session, so I stuck it out. It’s a novel featuring a real historical figure, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, over the course of several months in 1914. The novel’s narrator is Thomas Maggs, only surviving son of a pub owner who drinks too much. He’s got a lame foot and his mother wants him in school, since his foot will prevent him going to sea like so many other local boys.

There are some interesting things going on here — the real story of Mackintosh’s life, told as the boy learns it himself; the friendship between the misfit boy and the misunderstood artist, and the war with Germany creating paranoia and xenophobia in a small village on the Suffolk coast. Freud brings the atmosphere to life, as well as the country and seaside. That said, most of the characters just weren’t compelling enough for me to care what happened to them. Thomas’s family seemed like characters I’ve seen before — the tragically drunken father, the abused but long-suffering mother who protects the kids, one sister who goes into service and another who pines after her fiancee, presumed lost at sea. But doesn’t pine so much as to not get up to a little recreational fun with the soldiers billeted in the pub. Even Mackintosh and his wife, true though their story may be, seemed to be typecast in the midst of all this — foreigners (even though they’re only from Scotland) suspected of spying, the brilliant man whose rejection bruises his ego to the point of impacting his ability to work, the wife who carries him through.

My immediate reaction to the ending was to dislike it strongly. On reflection, half a day later, I still think it was rushed and unbelievable, but at least it felt fresh and new compared to the rest of the book. And yet — for some reason I spent my rare spare time with this book for several nights, and stayed with it through the end. Freud’s writing drew me on somehow.

Did you read this book? Did you like it more than I did? Leave a comment and tell me what I’ve missed.

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