The Girl in Berlin by Elizabeth Wilson
|The Girl in Berlin by Elizabeth Wilson
|Reviewer: Robin Leggett
|Summary: A post war spy story set in the time when the nation was gripped by the Burgess /Mclean spy scandal. Stylish and well constructed, you have to cope with not knowing what's going on for much of the book - reading her two previous, slightly related books will undoubtedly help with the large cast here. Trust no-one.
|Date: May 2012
|Publisher: Serpent's Tail
|External links: Author's website
Set in 1950s 'Austerity Britain', with detour or two to Berlin, Elizabeth Wilson's The Girl in Berlin is a stylish tale of espionage with a backdrop of the disappearance of Maclean and Burgess in a world where no one knows who to trust. Jack McGovern works at Special Branch but when Colin Harris, a known member of the Communist Party returns to the UK, MI5's Miles Kingdom draws Jack into investigate his intentions. Add in the fact that the wife of one of Harris's friends, Dinah Wentworth, works part time at the Courtauld Institute of Art where Dr Anthony Blunt is the main man, neither Jack, nor the reader, knows who is working for whom.
Elizabeth Wilson is probably best known for her academic work in areas such as feminism and popular culture, but this is not her first foray into fiction. In fact, this is her third novel set in this post war period and all are loosely connected with many of the more peripheral characters in this book cropping up in more major roles in her previous books, War Damage and The Twilight Hour. Unfortunately, I had read neither of the two previous books and while The Girl in Berlin certainly works as a stand-alone book, I think my enjoyment would have been enhanced by greater familiarity with the two previous novels, and in particular The Twilight Hour.
The reader's sense of confusion of what is going on and who is on which side is part of the concept of the book. It's not a spy story in the manner of say John le Carré, in that Jack is something of an unknowing and accidental spy. When Kingdom sends him off to Berlin, he doesn't have much of a clear aim and while this is ultimately explained, it does little to help Jack at the time, or indeed the reader, to know what the purpose of his trip is. In fact, for much of the book, it has the sense of a lot of people running around the periphery of a distinctly nebulous plot and that can be a little frustrating. Only late on do we truly understand how all the threads come together and who is pulling whose strings here.
The fact that there is a reasonably large cast though is why I feel familiarity with the previous books would have helped a little. At times it feels like she is intent on bringing in people to the book who are not critical to the story. This is great if you have read the previous books and see familiar people cropping up, but it is a little confusing if this is your first encounter with them all. It's not that gratuitous and they do tie in with the story in the end to a large extent, but you do feel that if this was a one off book, then the cast would have been trimmed to a more manageable level.
Providing you can tolerate a sustained period of confusion about what it going on in the knowledge that all will be revealed towards the end, this is a stylish story, and when you are working in a world of Cold War double agents, this is a clever way of replicating the confusion that existed in the real world with propaganda and partial information.
What Wilson does particularly well is to evoke the age in terms of the fashions, the culture and the relationships.
Out thanks to the kind people at Serpent's Tail for sending us this book.
For perhaps the definitive spy story of this period, then look no further than The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carre. It's a classic.
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