Top positive review
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superb - scope and range well beyond the ordinary
on 20 January 2013
I began on Robert Wilson's novels because of the attractiveness of Seville, which is the setting for his four Inspector Falcon books. They're hugely impressive, not least for how they reach out beyond Andalusia and into the tangled past of criminal relations between Spain and Morocco. But it was a while before I came upon this amazing book, which opens up much more sweeping and extraordinary perspectives, and is close to a history of cross-European spying, as well as a brilliantly focused study of how women are made use of by the spying organisations. It's to an extent John Le Carré territory, but in its study of women's lives more searching and disturbing.
It begins with a young Oxford maths graduate, Anna, recruited to be a British spy in 1940s Portugal, her mission to watch how Germans and others engage with Portugal's neutral government in moves to acquire metals crucial to building tanks. Then after the war, she stays on in Lisbon, marrying an army officer. When her husband and son are killed in Portugal's colonial wars, she's drawn into the Communist Party's revolutionary brigade, which is working towards the overthrow of Salazar, Portugal's dictator and leader. We're not yet half-way through the novel.
So far, much of the action is low-key, even the chases and the scenes of tense interrogation. What's unusual and remarkable is that the central protagonist is a woman with a very well-realised everyday life. The novel moves on, bringing Anna back to the UK, first of all through her reawakened interest in mathematics, and then for her to be re-recruited by the spymasters and sent to Germany, where a key figure from her Lisbon past (and the true father of her son who's now dead) holds a new prominence. The plotting is intense and intricate and utterly engaging. It focuses throughout on the pressures and dilemmas that face Anna, but while doing this opens up a telling vista of the webs of intrigue that have been the story of Europe from the 1940s to the end of the c20th. It remaps the history we may imagine we "know".
I moved on to read Robert Wilson's other novels. There's four, each quite short, set in West Africa, each bringing to life what it's like to be a young Englishman working in a world utterly foreign to most of us. Again, stretching our sense of the world. And there's his much-praised "A Small death in Lisbon", which jumps between the everyday present-day and the war-time past of Portugal, and its involvement with German banking. It too is alive and eduational, but seems simplistic in its construction when you begin on The Company of Strangers.
There a sense, a good sense, in which this novel echoes and draws on the mode of Graham Green and Le Carre. But this long novel has too a tenderness that develops throughout - which is in itself beguiling, and which in its quiet way underlines the utter disgustingness that spying actually is.
Outstanding. Warmly and highly recommended.