Speaking at the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the beginning of this month, John le Carre described his feelings about this novel as "toe-curling embarrassment". Since it had been me who'd asked him the question about it, I thought it'd be interesting to reread the book. This is a story that represents a departure from the author's work in the spy-thriller genre, although his abiding themes of betrayal, secrecy and intrigue still underly this tale of the repressed Aldo Cassidy and his obsession with the wildly unconventional Shamus and Helen. The whole appeal of the story, I think, hinges on whether you think this obsession is realistic and can empathise with Aldo's quest for something greater than his uneasy marriage to the brittle Sandra, or think that Shamus is a hectoring twerp of unparalleled selfishness who uses his (rumoured) artistic talent as an excuse for atrocious behaviour.
Personally, this time round, I still found myself believing in the story, although I could see how a little more impatience with the characters would cause a complete loss of faith in it. As for the writing, le Carre's attention to detail in the dialogue remains evident here: for example, the way Sandra ends just a few sentences with the nagging "but still" tells you a lot about what it would be like to be married to her. And I was interested to come across a few phrases that were to be later re-used in A Perfect Spy
, which (like this book) contains a number of autobiographical elements. As an interesting side-trip from the genre that le Carre has dominated for so long, it's to be recommended, but I don't think anyone could argue that this is one of his best.