'American Spy' turned out to be a fascinating, well-written thought-provoking book, that I almost didn't buy. 'American Spy is Lauren Wilkinson's first novel so I only had the publisher's summary to go on and that almost made me pass. It opens with:
'What if your sense of duty required you to betray the man you love? One woman struggles to choose between her honor and her heart in this enthralling espionage drama that deftly hops between New York and West Africa.'
Can you hear my eyes rolling? A Cold War Spy Romance. What a pitch.
Then I saw that 'American Spy' had been on Barak Obama's 2019 summer reading list so I assumed that it was more than pulp fiction.
From the rest of the publisher's summary, I thought I'd be reading an American spy thriller, with fictional characters woven into the real efforts by the CIA to undermine Thomas Sankara, a charismatic Marxist-Leninist Pan-Africanist who become the first President of Burkina Faso in 1983, with the twist being that I the main character was a black woman.
That is the frame that this book hangs on, but it's not really what the book is about.
Anyone looking for a black female version of Jack Ryan is going to be disappointed. This book is closer to Le Carré than Clancy but with a voice all its own.
Like Le Carré most recent novels 'Agent Running In The Field' or 'A Delicate Truth' or 'A Legacy Of Spies', Wilkinson's novel focuses on what kind of person becomes a spy and what it says about them. Where Le Carré focuses on establishment insiders who appear to be fully paid up members of the Old Boys Club but who actually sit a little outside of polite society, Wilkinson focuses on what it means to be a black woman, who is neither welcomed nor valued by the white male establishment and yet chooses to make a career in the FBI in the 1980s.
The style of storytelling shapes the feel of this novel. It's written as a first-person account by Marie Mitchell to her two twin sons. The account opens with a description of an armed man breaking into their home and trying to kill them. The rest is an explanation, for the sons to read when they are old enough, of the background to the attack and the need for the flight from home that follows it.
This 'letters to my sons' format means that the book is as focused on their family history as it is upon the ins and outs of Cold War spying. It also means that it tends to be more reflective in style. There are moments of tension and there is a fair amount of action but most of the novel is a mother's attempt to pass on to her sons who she is and who they should strive to become. Not surprisingly, this means a lot of the novel is about what it means to be black in America in the eighties.
I found the storytelling style very engaging. Marie Mitchell is an unusual woman who understands that some of her choices are driven by her history with her parents and her sister and some are simply about the kind of person that she is. She doesn't sugar-coat that or apologise for it but she does explain it clearly.
As I came to know Marie Mitchell, my understanding of what the 'American Spy' title meant changed. At one point, she tells the story of her FBI Graduation Ceremony. She has been asked to speak at it but, in a training session shortly before the ceremony, her face has been badly bruised by her large, white, male opponent. Mitchel's father, a senior police officer, sees her on the day of the ceremony, takes in her bruises and tells her that she doesn't have to speak. He says:
'You don't owe them anything. You give them what you wanna give them. But it's easier if they think you're one of them. It's easier to work from the inside. That's what I try to do. I've been a spy in this country for as long as I can remember.'
There's a lot in this book about what the excluded owe to those who exclude them and about how to make a place for yourself in a world that doesn't want you to be in it.
Marie Mitchel sees the world a little too clearly to be entirely comfortable in it. Here's an example of how her teenage self saw her boyfriend.
'I loved Robbie, which meant he could truly make me furious. In too much of what he said, I heard over-confidence about his limited life experience and his aggressively average intelligence. He was the type of guy that, had he been born white, especially if he’d grown up with a little money, would probably have wound up at an excellent business school.'
It was also interesting to see Marie Mitchel take stock of her own privilege and her very American identity when she finds herself in an African state where everyone sees her as American first and black second.
But this isn't just about being black in 80s American. It's about being Marie Mitchel, a woman who grew up with a mother who left one day to return to Martinique. with an older sister who. from a very young age, was determined to become a spy, and with a father who worked within the system, providing them with a good quality of life but finding himself boxed in to a senior but powerless job.
Marie Mitchell is someone who has learned to keep her inner self secret, hiding it behind constructed identities that she thinks will help her get what she wants. She does this because, at a very deep level, she accepts that she cannot have what she wants if she presents herself as she truly is. I think that instead of the clichéd 'What if your sense of duty required you to betray the man you love?' pitch in the publisher's summary, the real tension in this book is 'What if you getting what you want required you to break cover and show who you are?'
I think the mindset at this novel's core is shown by what Marie Mitchel writes to her boys about Robbie towards the end of the book:
'A part of me still loves Robbie but I can't tell him that. He'd take it as an invitation. I can only confess that to you two, here in these pages. To tell anyone else how I feel about him is to blow my cover. Throughout my life, the most consistent way I've revealed who I really am is through whom I've chosen to love.'
The words 'revealed' and 'chosen' and the thinking they imply drive the events of the novel.
I won't go into the spy story, other than to say that it's credible and has enough twists to keep it interesting. This novel stands or falls by whether or not you're engaged by Marie Mitchel and her worldview.
I found myself fascinated by what she had to say. I think I was greatly helped in this by having the words delivered by Bahni Turpin, whose narration is flawless. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.