Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

I really enjoyed this book – which was published in 1992 – but had decided not to review it because it seemed of such specialised interest. I only read it because I’m planning to travel to Spain. Who would care what happened there in the eighth century? But then I realised that the history Fletcher is talking about has real significance for today’s world. In particular, it has relevance for the history wars that the current Liberal government in Australia (ie conservative in the Australian context) has reignited through statements that history as currently taught does not have enough emphasis on Western traditions and values, particularly Christian religious ones. There should, says the Education Minister, be a ‘greater focus on the benefits of Western civilisation’.

In 711 AD, the southern parts of Spain fell to an invasion from Morocco. It was led by Arabs from further east, who used local Berber troops to do the heavy lifting. Northern Spain remained in the hands of the Christian Visigoth successors to the Roman occupiers of the country, with a sort of no-mans-land in between. For the next seven centuries, there were periods of peace, but also periods of sporadic warfare, sometimes between the Muslim south and the Christian north, but also internally between both Muslims and Christians, and even on occasion between alliances of Christians and Muslims against other Christians and Muslims. Though at times, especially towards the end of the period, these conflicts were couched in the religious terms of Muslim versus Christian, they were far more often about land and loot than religious doctrine. The loss of Granada, the last bastion of Muslim power on the peninsula in 1492, and the eventual expulsion of the remaining Moors from Spain between 1609 and 1614 marked the final victory of the Catholic monarchy. But Fletcher points out that the idea of deliverance from Muslim rule by brave Christian kings owes as much to Spanish national myth-making as it does to what actually happened.

The most obvious traces of the Moorish presence in Spain are the architectural ones, with buildings such as the great mosque at Córdoba – Christianised after the fall of Córdoba – the Torre del Oro in Seville and the Alhambra – a garrison/palace built in the latter years of Muslim rule in Granada. We don’t know a lot about how ordinary people lived. This is partly because the historical records are sparse, and partly because where they do exist, they relate only to the doings of the rulers. Fletcher suggests that although most Muslim rulers were more tolerant of both Christians and Jews under their jurisdiction than Christian monarchs were of Muslims or Jews, there was a fair bit of persecution on both sides. This was no golden age of tolerance.

Fletcher is however, clear that the Christian West owes a huge debt to Muslim Spain. This is because it was the conduit through which flowed Greek philosophical, scientific and medical knowledge from the East. Translated into Arabic from the original Greek or Persian, the writings of philosophers such as Aristotle were diffused throughout the Muslim world. In Spain, they were translated into Latin, and in Fletcher’s words, ‘channelled off to irrigate the dry pastures of European intellectual life’. He thinks that an opportunity was missed for scholars of both faiths to truly understand each other’s religion, but nevertheless sees the intellectual gifts that Muslim society did pass on as crucial to the intellectual awaking that was so important for the Renaissance and the rise of the West.

So what has this to do with history wars? The history I learnt at school was entirely Europocentric, and Spain was an unimportant appendage to the south. When it was mentioned at all, it was as a country foolish enough to send an armada against England, and a cruel colonial power in South America – much worse than the Anglo Saxon colonial powers. And there was nothing about Islam, except some vague idea that they were nasty heathens whom we could never manage to beat in the Crusades. I’m very grateful to Professor Fletcher for filling in at least a tiny part of what I missed by focusing on the benefits of Western civilisation. He shows you can’t understand what these might be in isolation from other civilisations. ‘The plain fact,’ he says, ‘is that between 712 and 1492 Muslim and Christian communities lived side by side in the Iberian peninsula, clutched in a long, intimate embrace: sharing a land, learning from one another, trading, intermarrying, misunderstanding, squabbling, fighting – generally indulging in all the incidents that go to furnish the ups and downs of coexistence or relationship.’ Surely an understanding of this relationship is relevant to the western world, where we know so little about Muslim history and culture?

Moorish Spain is an immensely readable short introduction to this subject. ‘The reader I have in mind,’ says Fletcher, ‘is the inquisitive traveller in Spain who might want to know something more than a guidebook can tell him about the people who built the mosque of Córdoba or the Alhambra at Granada.’ For me he goes much further than that, correcting the balance which is already far too much in favour of Western civilisation at the expense of any understanding of the history of Muslim culture in Europe.

You can read more about Professor Fletcher, who died in 2004, here. There are notes on further reading at the end of the book.

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When I recently reviewed The Market in Babies: Stories of Australian Adoption, by Marian Quartly et al. (2013), I concentrated on its underlying argument: the supply of and demand for babies for adoption. I didn’t spend a lot of time on the stories told by the adoptees; they speak for themselves. The Magician’s Son (2005) is another such story. It is McCutcheon’s autobiography and in it, he tells how he spent years trying to come to terms with the fact of his adoption.

When he was nine years old, Sandy McCutcheon was told by another child that he was adopted, and this was confirmed by the child’s parents. His adoptive parents, however, initially denied it and then refused to give him any details about his birth family. His adoptive parents were members of the comfortable, conservative, professional middle class of Christchurch, New Zealand. They provided Sandy with many material comforts, but not, he felt, the love that he craved. As soon as he was told about the adoption, he knew it was true, because he never felt that he belonged in his family. He was never comfortable with his name; it ‘felt like an ill-fitting skin, one that needed to be shed.’ ‘It was only with hindsight,’ he says, ‘that I understood how traumatised I must have been at the time. The building blocks of my personality had been shattered’. His sole option, he felt, was to rebel, as  ‘the only way I have of validating my existence’. His whole life became ‘a search for identity’.

The structure of the book reflects McCutcheon’s preoccupation with his adoption. It is divided into two parts, the first dealing with the time before he met members of his birth family at the age of 50, the second dealing with the time after. Some readers may remember Sandy McCutcheon as the presenter of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s very successful radio program Australia Talks Back (1992 -2006) (later Australia Talks, 2007-11). As well as working in radio, he was an actor, ran a restaurant, wrote several novels and many plays and was the founder of a Buddhist centre for people in need in Tasmania.  He notes that he was attracted to jobs where he could appear to be ‘someone other than who I was’. His personal life was even more unsettled; he had a number of relationships that failed, leaving him with a further sense of loss. ‘The neurosis that had been set up by my abandonment as a child,’ he says, led to the feeling that ‘if I was not worthy of being loved by my own mother, then I was not worthy of being loved by anyone.’ As it is an autobiography, we do not get the views of his various partners, but it is clear that he can’t have been easy to live with.

All through his life, McCutcheon kept searching for anything or anyone who could tell him about where he really came from. Despite the unhappiness of his childhood, he hadn’t completely lost touch with his adoptive family. During a visit to his sister and his ailing mother in New Zealand, his sister – who had also been adopted by the McCutcheons, but had never felt angry about it as Sandy did – gave him some papers she had found relating to his adoption. They gave his birth name. From there, he discovered he had a brother and sister, and later, a large extended family. His mother and father were both dead, so the circumstances of his adoption were never fully confirmed. But it seemed that when his mother and father separated, his two elder siblings went with their father, while he remained with his mother. But when she remarried, she gave him up for adoption. By this time, he was about two years old, and though it seems unlikely that he could remember that his birth father used to do magic tricks, he nevertheless later dreamed that his father was a magician – giving the book its title.

Life for McCutcheon’s birth brother and sister became very difficult when their father married a woman who mistreated them. But McCutcheon says that he would have preferred to share that mistreatment with them rather than being adopted. Once he knew who he was, he grew in ‘tranquillity and contentment’. His birth sister, however, had a different view. ‘Anything would have been better than the life we endured,’ she writes in an Afterword. ‘When I listen to Sandy tell of his life I think [adoption] might have been the better option.’ Perhaps if the McCutcheons had told Sandy from the outset that he was adopted, he would have dealt with it better, but, as he acknowledges, this would have been hard to do, given the time and place. McCutcheon has certainly judged his adoptive parents harshly, but readers may find it harder do so.

There is a Postscript that was added while the book was in the process of publication. It explains what happened in relation to one aspect of the story that left me feeling uncomfortable. ‘Were my life story a work of fiction,’ McCutcheon writes, ‘an editor would have put a pen through this postscript, citing lack of credibility.’ I am glad the issue is resolved, but am left muttering that life can be stranger than fiction.

You can read more about Sandy McCutcheon here, including the titles of his novels. He now lives at least part of the time in Morocco, and this is his blog about the town of Fez where he has a house.

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This time of the year everyone seems to be writing about ‘the best of 2013’, so I thought I’d join in. Here are my five favourite books from this year. They weren’t necessarily published in 2013; I just read them this year. The top three were easy, but numbers four and five were difficult choices and I could easily have made different ones. Why do I think they are ‘the best’? Putting them together like this makes me realise that in each case it is the writing style that appeals to me. What the author is saying is also important; each of these books seems to me to have an important message. But the message becomes most appealing when it is delivered beautifully, as is the case in all of these. I’ve linked to my original reviews for more information about them.

5. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl (2012) is a very clever mystery story about the disappearance of a young woman from her home in North Carthage, Missouri. Has she been kidnapped? Or murdered? What is her husband Nick’s role in this? Can either of them be trusted as narrators? The ingenious plot is set against the background of post GFC America; Nick and Amy’s moral landscape is as bleak as the physical setting. The combination of social commentary and plot twists is brilliantly done.

4. Home, by Marilynne Robinson

This couldn’t be more different from number 5. Set in 1956, Home (2008) is a companion to Robinson’s Gilead (2004), but I couldn’t exclude it for that reason, though I think it’s better to read Gilead first, as both books cover some of the same ground. Jack Boughton is the disreputable son of the Presbyterian minister of the small town of Gilead. The Reverend Broughton is old and ill. He loves Jack, but despairs of his wild ways. Why has Jack chosen to come home now, after so many years away?  This is a book where the story is simple. It is the relationships that matter – but also the reflections on American history and society that Robinson quietly alludes to. I know of no other writer who can make silences mean so much.

3. Bring Up The Bodies, by Hilary Mantel

It’s true I didn’t warm to this book as easily as I did to Wolf Hall (2009), the first in the trilogy. I think this was because I found the striving Cromwell of the first book more attractive than the successful courtier of this one. But I still very much enjoyed it, and nobody can deny how well Mantel writes. I like her use of the present tense and her sharp, modern dialogue. It’s true that we all know more or less what is going to happen, but Cromwell doesn’t, which adds hugely to the tension. Mantel doesn’t pretend she is writing history; it’s how Cromwell might have seen it – an imaginative recreation. Maybe it’s best to read Wolf Hall first, though.

2. The Heart Broke In, by James Meek

This is a wonderfully complex story that Meek nevertheless manages to hold together in a very satisfying way. Set mostly in present day England, with brief excursions to Africa, it is part social commentary, part exploration of morality, part thoughts on science, part love story and part family saga. And that description only scratches the surface. There is a rich cast of characters. And then there is the writing. Meek has a great ear for the vernacular, a wry vocabulary to describe modern life, and the capacity to write movingly about love, betrayal and death. A great combination.

1. Flight Behaviour, by Barbara Kingsolver

And the winner is Flight Behaviour (2012). Maybe I’m biased in my choice, because Flight Behaviour is about the effects of climate change, an issue in which I am passionately interested. The migration of Monarch butterflies has been disrupted by the destruction of their winter habitat, and they have settled instead in a valley in the Appalachians. But they are constantly as risk from the weather. Kingsolver doesn’t lecture about the effects of climate change; she shows them. But even if readers only have a mild interest in this subject, I think they’d have to agree that it’s a beautifully written book. The story is complex and satisfying. Kingsolver shows a rare humanity in presenting her characters as fully rounded and truly human. Some of this comes from her ability to write convincing dialogue. But her descriptions of people, family, nature, and life in general in rural Bible belt America are superb.

Only one of these books – Bring Up The Bodies – won any of the big literary prizes, so critical opinion isn’t on my side. But I don’t care. These are the books that moved me most this year, and I hope that other readers will enjoy – or have already enjoyed – them too. Happy reading.

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The authors of this brief overview of the history of adoption in Australia can’t have known how timely its publication would be. After charting the changing balance between the rights and needs of adopting parents on one hand and adoptees and their relinquishing birth mothers on the other, they conclude with a quotation from Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s apology for the forced separation of mothers from their babies, emphasising the wrongs done to the latter (July 2013). It was, she said, ‘a story of suffering and unbearable loss.’ Today (19 December 2013) the new Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, has announced an investigation that aims to make it ‘much, much easier’ for Australian parents to adopt overseas, saying : ‘There are millions of children in orphanages overseas who would love to have parents. And thousands of those, maybe even tens of thousands of those could come to Australia.’ He clearly wants the balance to swing back in favour of parents who wish to adopt. But if the authors of this book are correct, this market may no longer exist.

The book is divided into two sections, the first about the experience of adoption, the second about the process and how it has evolved. The ‘experience’ section draws on the stories that adoptees, birth mothers and some adopting parents have placed on the Monash History of Adoption website, and in a few cases, recounted to government enquires. The authors are aware that their sample ‘does not represent the full range of opinions about adoption’; those for whom adoption has not been problematic, and those who prefer not to think about it at all, are not represented. Not all of the stories are about traumatic experiences, though some are – particularly those of mothers who wished to keep their babies but were actively denied that choice. The search by children for their birth mothers and mothers for their ‘lost’ children sometimes has a happy ending, but frequently does not. The authors’ point in all this is not to claim that adoption was always either a good or bad choice; it is to show that ways of thinking about what constituted a ‘good’ mother meant that the system was stacked against women who had children out of wedlock.

The book is called The Market in Babies because the authors argue that all of the changes in social attitudes, policy and practice around adoption can be linked to changes in supply of and demand for children for adoption. And this is what is charted in the second section. From the time of white settlement there had been informal adoptions between friends and relatives; from about the 1880s, a market developed where adoptions were arranged among strangers, often through advertisements in the daily press, with money changing hands. By the 1920s, all states passed legislation outlawing this practice, and creating a legal basis for adoption. This legislation gave full possession of the child to the adopting parents, sealing their birth records and preventing contact with the birth family. This situation prevailed until the 1980s, when self-help groups of adoptees and/or birth mothers began to agitate for access to their records. Once this was achieved, there was a further wave of political agitation as birth mothers found out that in many cases they had been deceived by social workers and others about their rights, even under the legislation of the time. It was this agitation that drove the apology for forced adoptions, not only by the commonwealth government, but also by hospitals and charities which had been involved in the practice.

Once the number of children available for adoption in Australia declined, the authors show how parents who wished to adopt looked overseas. They note the frustration of adopting parents with the time it takes to complete this process, but also point out that steps must be taken to ensure the best interests of the child in accordance with international conventions on human rights, the place of such adoptions as part of Australia’s overseas aid and immigration program, and ‘only finally’ the needs of the couple wishing to adopt. They argue, furthermore, that this market too is drying up, as the countries from which adoptees are sourced increasingly limit the number of children available for adoption, and impose more stringent controls to prevent the fraud and exploitation that have been endemic in this area.  Last year, there were fewer than 500 adoptions in Australia, about half of which were from overseas. (This number also includes local adoptions under a new ‘open’ regime, which allows for transition from foster care to adoption.) The authors suggest that the new emerging market is in surrogacy, where women from less developed countries – usually India – carry a child for a childless couple from a developed country. If they are right, then Tony Abbott’s ‘tens of thousands’ of overseas adoptees are unlikely to materialise, whatever changes are made in Australia to speed up the process of overseas adoption.

Throughout this story, the authors highlight the conflicting interests at work: is adoption about the needs of the child, or the needs of the adopting parents? Can we assume that these are completely congruent? Or may some children be better off in their birth families, no matter how hard their circumstances? Could the money spent on overseas adoption be better spent supporting children in need in their own country? It seems to the authors that adoption, whether local or overseas, was firmly established primarily as a service to the child; Tony Abbott’s promise to make it easier for adoptive parents – whether or not he can carry it out – appears to challenge this view. Time will tell.

You can find out more about the book and its authors here. A further report on the Prime Minister’s intentions can be found here.

*Disclaimer: Professor Quartly is my sister.

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The title of this novel makes it sound like a romantic 1920s melodrama. Published in 2012, it is actually an acute social commentary about present day British life. The title is the punch line of a medical joke I don’t quite understand, but the book is brilliant.

The main protagonists are Ritchie Shepherd and his sister Bec. He is a former rock star, now with a wife, two children and large country house. These days he is the producer of a reality TV show, Teen Makeover. In him, Meek has created a character in that epitomises the sort of celebrity A list culture so beloved by the trashy end of the British tabloid press. He’s also having an affair with one of the – underage – teens on his show. Bec is a microbiologist, an expert in parasites; she has injected herself with parasites that may give some immunity to malaria in order to test the procedure’s safety. Others who carry some of the story are Alex, also a microbiologist, who is studying cell therapy and his uncle Harry, yet another research scientist, who is dying of cancer. There’s also a rich cast of other relations and friends – some of whom are aren’t all that friendly. The story has a complex web of relationships – involving love, betrayal, honour and death – as its drivers, with a good dose of science thrown in.

The book is thematically complex too. The epigraph is a quotation from Kafka, about starting and caring for a family; this is ‘the best that a man can do’, and family, heredity and inheritance are central to Meek’s story. The ‘best’ of some of the characters isn’t that good; Meek from the start undercuts this theme by noting that Kafka never got round to ‘family’ himself. The theme that emerges most strongly for me is less that of family, and more the question Meek poses about how to do the right thing. Each of the main characters faces a moral dilemma, and each deals with it differently. Meek uses the device of a website that threatens to reveal scandal about someone unless they dob in someone else to focus on these dilemmas. Is everyone equally self-serving? Can betrayal ever produce a good outcome? Is it true, as Bec concludes, that ‘In twenty-first-century England honour was not in play’? The website offering itself as a ‘God substitute’ seems based on malice rather than genuine concern about wrong-doing. A rigid belief in God doesn’t produce moral outcomes either. Even after saying this much, I am still wildly understating the complexity of the issues Meek is dealing with.

Meek lays out his moral arguments by counterpointing various actions of his characters one against another. An evil act (or one I think of as evil) is balanced against another that echoes the first, but is benign. What appears to be an act of heroism may not have been, and may anyway have produced more harm than good, whereas an act of betrayal may have produced more good than harm. Throughout the story one can see Meek posing his questions about the morality through clever plotting. He has been compared to Ian McEwan, and I can see similarities to the moral dilemmas of McEwan’s Amsterdam – reviewed here. But in Amsterdam, I thought the counterpointing of the plot made it overly determined, whereas Meek allows his characters to act in character, rather than as pawns moved by the author. I know they are constructs of the author – the trick is to make them appear to act as real people, not devices making the author’s point. I think Meek succeeds brilliantly here.

And then there’s the way he writes. There are some authors who I feel I could potentially write as well as, (not that I actually do) and there are some that are far above me. Meek is one of the latter. I guess it is essentially the right word in the right place. He can be very funny, as in the scene where Bec’s mother is defending her ‘humourist’ diet against Bec’s scepticism. ‘I don’t see why I have to die young because there’s only one kind of science allowed,’ she says. ‘Mum,’ says Bec. ‘It’s too late for you to die young.’ Ritchie is showing off his car to Bec, who has been talking to him about her anti malaria parasites. ‘You don’t see parasites driving these babies,’ he says, leaving the reader to wonder if Ritchie himself might not be a parasite. And you remember this phrase when Bec has to kill off her parasites if she is going to have a baby. Meek also writes powerfully about feelings and emotions, and the passage describing Harry’s death is truly moving. There’s some science (another similarity to McEwan) but is isn’t overwhelming, and is indeed an important part of the story.

This is Meek’s sixth book. He was on the staff of The Guardian until 2005 and has reported on subjects including the war in Iraq, the Chechen conflict, the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and tax avoidance by the rich in the UK. He now writes regularly for the London Review of Books. You can find more about him here. I’m surprised I’ve never seen his work in contention for the Man Booker Prize, though this one was shortlisted for the Costa Book Award, formerly the Whitbread Prize; he was beaten by Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies, so not a bad effort. Definitely worth reading.

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Drowning Rose (2011) is the seventh of Marika Cobbold’s novels, though I confess I had never heard of her until I picked this one up. Apparently her first novel, Guppies for Tea (1993), attracted a lot of favourable attention, and she’s been quietly writing away ever since. At first I thought this was chick-lit that had got a bit older, but on reflection, I don’t think that’s really fair.

The main narrator of the story is Eliza, now in her early forties. She works as a ceramics restorer for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and though she loves her job, repairing ceramics doesn’t help her repair her life. She has never recovered from the guilt she feels for not saving her friend Rose, who drowned in an accident in their final year at school. This has blighted her emotional life; witness her failed marriage. Then out of the blue, she is contacted by Rose’s father, who is also her godfather. He has not spoken to her since Rose’s death, as he too blames her for it. Now he wants her to come and visit him in Sweden where he lives. What does he want with her? There is also a secondary narrator, Sandra, who likes to be called Cassandra; her story is about the time when she was at school with Eliza and Rose.

This is not a story where very much happens; small domestic and workplace incidents, and Eliza’s visits to her aging godfather, make up most of the content. This is not in itself a problem; the emphasis is on emotions and feelings, particularly the grief and guilt Eliza still feels about Rose’s death. Is this taking proper responsibility for something she has done, or is it deliberately – if unconsciously – self-limiting what she might achieve in her life? (This makes an interesting contrast to the non-fiction book The Consolation of Joe Cinque, by Helen Garner, which I reviewed recently, in which in real life, Anu Singh killed her boyfriend, but didn’t accept responsibility for her actions.) The contrast between the disintegration of Eliza’s life and the work she does repairing ceramics is rather obvious, but the ceramics themselves are interesting (though not as interesting as those in A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book), and the Scandinavian fairy stories resonate with events in the story. Why involve Sweden? It is where Cobbold was born.

But I’m less happy with the second narrative. Cassandra’s story shows her as a selfish outsider, desperate to join Eliza and Rose’s group of friends – the princesses, as she calls them. Though this isn’t a structural problem, I was sorry that Cobbold made Cassandra a scholarship girl ashamed of her lower-class roots. There are other forms of envy than class envy. And I don’t think the two stories really fit together as a whole. There is some suspense involved in their coming together in the present, though it’s not that hard to guess the outcome. Cassandra’s story deliberately contrasts Eliza and Rose as young women when life is ‘all just out there, just sitting there, waiting for you to go and get it’– ‘a wide golden road to a glittering future’ – with Rose dead and Eliza as she is now: ‘a life of ‘if onlys’ and ‘what ifs’. But I find the two versions of her hard to reconcile.

For me, this book is rescued by the black humour that characterises Eliza’s voice. Cobbold says that ‘My way of dealing with most things, although obviously there are exceptions, is to make a joke’, and this is what she does with Eliza. ‘I can do perverse thinking,’ she says. And she also does flippant: ‘The call [from her godfather] shouldn’t have upset you like this.’ ‘I know. But try telling that to the call.’ Her step sister, Ruth, ‘was watching me the way a laid-back bird might watch a worm making its painstaking way to the surface of the soil. Now she said, ‘I haven’t upset you have I?’ I gave her a newscaster’s smile. ‘Of course you haven’t.’ Next thing I knew she was crying. I stared at her. ‘All right, you have. I am upset. There, you can stop crying now.’ Ruth looked up at me with tear-blurred eyes. ‘What are you talking about?’ There’s a lot of this sort of stuff – cross purpose jokes, non-sequiturs and slightly off key observations. It’s probably what I miss in Cassandra’s version of Eliza.

I think this book belongs in the category of ‘pleasant’ rather than ‘challenging’. This is perhaps why I initially thought of it as chick-lit – which addresses issues of modern womanhood humorously and light-heartedly – though in this case for forty-somethings, not twenty-somethings. But Eliza’s grief and guilt, some of her thoughts about old age, and her acerbic voice perhaps lift it beyond the merely light-hearted.

You can read more about Marika Cobbold here.

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I recently reviewed the latest Charles Cumming spy story: A Foreign Country (2012). Cumming has been highly praised for his work, but while I enjoyed the book, I didn’t think the writer warranted the comparisons he was getting with legends of the genre like John le Carré. But I thought I’d give him another try; this one was published in 2011. The result? My opinion remains the same. He’s good, but not that good.

If I was being very picky – which of course I never am – I’d say this was not really a spy story at all. Rather, it is a mystery story, where an innocent individual finds himself (in this case) inadvertently involved in some sort of conspiracy. It just so happens that the events that make up this conspiracy take place in the secret world of espionage, with the familiar themes of double dealing and betrayal.

Dr Sam Gaddis is a lecturer in Russian History at University College London. At the launch of his book, The Tsars, comparing Peter the Great with ‘the current Russian president Sergei Platov’ (clearly Vladimir Putin) he meets a young woman, Holly Levette, who claims that her recently dead mother has left an archive of material about the KGB. She has been referred to him by a journalist friend of Sam’s, Charlotte Berg, who is also working on a story involving spying. She has been contacted by someone who claims to have explosive revelations about a sixth British spy associated with those recruited by the pre-world war II Soviet espionage agency, the NKVD, during the young men’s years at Cambridge – the Trinity Five (Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt and Cairncross). Charlotte asks Sam to collaborate on a book about it. Her sudden death from a heart attack and his urgent need for money – a tax bill and school fees for his daughter who lives in Spain with Sam’s ex-wife – convince him to go it alone. But what on earth had she discovered? And is there anything new in Holly’s archive?

As you might expect, Sam’s path is not smooth, and he soon has various enemies – though as in most ‘quest’ stories, he finds help as well as hindrance along the way. The story is told largely through his eyes, but other characters also carry the plot at various times, so the reader sometimes knows more than he does, for example when he discards hypotheses the reader knows to be true. This helps with the pace and tension, though it is a slow- building plot, rather than the ‘bang bang kiss kiss’ sort. I am always interested in how a plot about a civilian with lots of powerful enemies can be resolved; it’s not like he can arrest someone. This one finds a quite satisfying mechanism, though I am left with the feeling that the plot, though complex, isn’t really subtle. It comes together, but you can see the magician behind the screen pulling the strings. This may be unfair; I know I’m comparing the way the crucial elements of the plot resolve with ‘the last clever knot’ that Smiley has to unpick in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – and I had to read that twice before I understood it. And of course it all looks simple once you know. The twists and turns are enjoyable, and that’s probably all that matters.

Cumming writes well about people. He is good at quick character sketches, and makes the cast of minor characters come alive. He presents Sam Gaddis as an essentially a good man who believes in ‘human decency’, caught up in events well outside his control – though he manages to deal with it all reasonably well. He has some of the talents needed for his quest; he protests that he is ‘an archives man’, not an investigative journalist, but he is good at following a trail from one piece of evidence to the next. (In a nice touch, his enemies manage to use his ‘archive’ work to trick him temporarily.) He also falls to bits quite convincingly at times, making him more human than some other fictional academic sleuths – Robert Langdon comes to mind. I am less convinced, however, by Holly Levette, and the other woman in the book, Tanya Acocella. At one point Gaddis compiles a list of reasons why Holly, now his girlfriend, might be a ‘plant’, and it’s all too believable. Her reasons for being with him aren’t ever explored. Nor, in my opinion, is Tanya’s motivation adequately explained. This is a pity, because it’s her role that makes the plot a bit mechanistic; she does what is needed by the story, not what comes from being a character that Cumming has fully developed. But hey, it’s a well written thriller with a clever plot. Be grateful for having found a good one. And I do like the end.

You can read more about Charles Cumming here. His next book, A Colder War, is as promised a sequel to A Foreign Country, and will be published in 2014.

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