Friday, July 13, 2012

Review of The Envoy by Edward Wilson (Arcadia, 2008)

In 1950s Britain Kit Fournier is a career diplomat and spy, notionally the Counselor for Political Affairs at the US embassy on Grosvenor Square, but also the CIA Head of Station.  His family have a foreign service pedigree and Fournier is well travelled, schooled and networked.  The Cold War is well underway, both the US and Russia have the hydrogen bomb, and Britain is struggling to remain a world power and hold on to its empire.  Fournier’s primary job is to spy on and undermine his supposed ally, bringing them evermore under US influence and control.  To that end he seeks to disrupt British-Soviet relations and to keep an eye on Britain’s attempts to become an atomic power, running covert operations and a network of agents.  Through his cousin, the beautiful and alluring Jennie, married to a British nuclear scientist, he hears about developments at Orford Ness, an island off the Suffolk coast.  Determined to find out what is happening and to disrupt its progress he plays a dangerous game with MI5/6, the KGB, and his own spymasters, being drawn into a position that’ll take all his guile and skill to handle.

The Envoy is a superior spy story that blends real world events and people with a fictional tale.  It is complex, multi-layered, atmospheric, full of historical and political insight, and reveals deep insight into human relations.  Wilson constructs a compelling and plausible plot that cleverly uses real events, such as the Ordzhonikidze incident in Portsmouth harbour, Britain’s hydrogen bomb program, and the Suez crisis, and real personalities such as Allen Dulles, Jack Kennedy and Dick White.  He recreates the social landscape of Britain and the wider political atmosphere and diplomatic games being played in the 1950s, providing a deep sense of historical realism (indeed, the bibliography at the end of the book shows that Wilson did a fair bit of research in plotting the book).  In particular, Wilson captures the spy’s world of deception, lies, betrayals, coercion, blackmail, state-sanctioned murder, paranoia, danger and constant worry, and that half the battle is the games within and between one’s own organisations.  His characterization is excellent, especially his portrayal of Kit Fournier as a self-reflexive spy racked with self-loathing, yet compelled out of duty and honour to play his role, and he does a good job at exploring the human condition and what drives and shapes people in particular circumstances.  Overall, a very well told story, with a couple of nice twists and turns, and an excellent resolution that proves that nothing is as it seems, even to those that think they can see the hand that each party is holding. 


1 comment:

Margot Kinberg said...

Rob - It's not often that a novel with a "spy thriller" pace also has solid and deep characterisation. I'm glad this one did and that you enjoyed it.