This historical fiction novel a bestseller when released in the
U.K. in 2006 has all the elements of a good read: action, suspense, and
even a bit of romance though the pace falls a bit short of the mark. While the
book overall was entertaining, it wasn't until the final third that it became
hard to put down.
The book centers around four main characters whose lives are intertwined: Harry, his old classmates Bernie and Sandy, and Barbara, Bernie's ex-lover, and Sandy's current paramour. It is Sandy, however, who is left out of the third person narration, as the book switches from the perspectives of the other three. This makes Sandy's already shady persona even more suspect.
Sansom brings to life an era that's likely unfamiliar to many. He sets the mood and easily evokes the horrors of wartime with simple descriptions. In this scene, the war is seen through Harry's eyes as he watches the following unfold:
"The young woman was bending over, poking among the slops, when a sudden gust of wind caught her thin black dress, blowing it over her head. She cried out and stood up, arms clawing at it. She had no underclothes and her thin body was suddenly exposed, startlingly pale with prominent ribs and sagging breasts. The old woman ran over and tried to disentangle the dress. The civiles sprang to life. They darted across the road, grabbing at the woman. One jerked at the dress, there was a ripping tear but it dropped again, covering her. She put her arms across her breasts, shivering violently."
At the beginning there may be some questions, but Sansom answers most of them as
he occasionally revisits the past to fill in the gaps. The politics and intrigue
might be more difficult to follow. Sansom does provide a Historical Note at the
end of the novel, an educational reveal of what actually happened during this
Spy novels like this one can be fun as you use your intuition to figure out what's happening and guess what's to come. As Sandy says, "It's amazing what you can find out if you look. Things people want to keep hidden that might come in useful."
Themes of power and fate resonate throughout the novel, and are revisited particularly at the end. Whether or not the conclusion is fitting is up for interpretation.
This review was originally published in January 2008, and has been updated for the January 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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