Saturday, 17 March 2018

Book review: Red Sparrow, Jason Matthews (2013)

This page-turner quickly proved its value and drew me into a world of pursuit and flight, deception and loyalty, love and hate. At the core of the novel sits Dominika Egorova, a thwarted ballet dancer who was forced to quit dance school because of the unethical and criminal conduct of two other students. This plot device sets the tone for much of the novel, where life in Russia is characterised by forces that operate in the shadows, a place where the vectors of crime and money intersect with disturbing frequency.

Dominika enters Russia’s foreign intelligence service, the SVR, after she is involved in an assassination of an enemy of the president, Vladimir Putin, who will henceforth take a special interest in her career. It helps also that her uncle, Vanya, is a senior bureaucrat in the organisation. She is sent to “Sparrow School”, where both male and female operatives are taught the arts of seduction and coercion so that they can be more effective spies.

Her first posting is to Helsinki, where she is ordered to recruit Nate Nash, a young CIA operative who the SVR thinks is running a high-ranking agent, codenamed Marble, in Moscow. To do this, she starts swimming at the municipal pool where Nash swims. There is a lovely passage in this part of the book where the focalisation swaps from one of them to the other as they are both swimming lengths side by side along the pool. The transition is masterfully done and demonstrates that Matthews is in full control of his material.

Action scenes where people are killing each other or making love in the novel however tend to fray a bit around the edges, showing disconcerting gaps in the narrative material and to a degree the reader’s interest lapses at these points, but for the most part Matthews’ technique is adequate for the tasks at hand. There is another nice passage, near the end of the book when Nash contravenes orders and travels from Athens to Estonia, that shows how fine Matthews’ technique can be at times. In this passage, the sentences run together all in a rush, as though the author is struggling to keep up with the drama in Nash’s mind as he negotiates all the obstacles in his path on his quest to reach his destination, and to see Dominika – with whom, by this time, he las fallen in love – once again before she goes back behind the curtain.

Dominika is recruited at the outset by Nash and his colleagues Marty Gable (deputy chief of station) and Tom Forsyth (chief of station), rather than her recruiting him. She is motivated to switch loyalties because of something that had happens to Marta Yelenova, who also worked in the Helsinki SVR office under rezident Volontov. When she appears in the novel, Marta is aged around 50 but used to be a “sparrow” herself, and she and Dominika share stories and build a friendship in the SVR office’s otherwise alienating environment. But an operation the SVR was conducting goes awry and Marta is slated for liquidation and is killed by the SVR using the shadowy assassin Sergey Matorin, who we come across again later in the book. Dominika is wretched in the face of such cruelty and Nash is able to recruit her to work for the CIA, however she is whisked back to Moscow and tortured in an effort to extract the truth about the aborted operation.

The drama follows the unfaltering pace of the novel as it negotiates such plot twists in its onward rush to an anticipated conclusion. But one weakness in the novel is the different ways that the operatives on the two sides are drawn by the author. On the Russian side the higher-ranking officers in the SVR tend to be clumsy, venal and ambitious, keen most of all to please their masters and not very bright when it comes to running agents. This is surprising because it is suggested that it is in Russia that you find in the broader society the kinds of shadowy subterfuges that typify spying operations. On the American side however, the characterisation is richer and each of the operatives takes on a unique identity, one that is carefully drawn to create a varied tapestry where individual enterprise is seen to be valued, although Matthews makes passing reference to careerists in the agency on his side of the Atlantic as well.

Gable, for example, is an engaging character with plenty of experience under his belt that serves to enrich his conversation, and he is especially charming when it comes to talking about the different kinds of food he has eaten in his wide travels. On the subject of food, by the way, each chapter in the book comes with a recipe at the end for one of the dishes served up for the characters in the chapter just finished. I didn’t read these little vignettes after the first few as they don’t add to the plot, but they illustrate the kind of detail that spies work with in their daily work. Knowing how to make something as simple as a cheese fondue, such as Gable makes for Nate and Dominika one night in Helsinki, underscores the kind of curiosity the service values in its operatives.

Like Gable, Simon Benford, a senior operative who is chief of counterintelligence based in Virginia, is richly drawn. Matthews develops Benford’s character slowly and deliberately so that he can be trusted by the reader. Trust is essential for credibility in the spy’s universe of lies and deceit, and is one of the things that motivates Dominika, who the CIA is trying to make sure of. At the end of the book it is still not certain whether she will remain active as an agent for the agency or if she will hang up her boots. The book thus ends up in the air, preparing the ground for a sequel.

Like the little recipes, another authorial device Matthews relies on, this time to furnish material for character development, is Dominika’s synaesthesia. She sees coloured haloes, or mantles, behind the heads of the people she meets that give her information about the person she is talking with. Yellow means the person cannot be trusted, and purple means they can be, and there are different intensities of colour as well. Unfortunately, the device isn’t ever used actively to advance the plot, so it is not intimately worked into the novel’s fabric and remains a kind of tic that does more to distract the reader than anything else.

Central to the plot is the love affair that develops between Nate and Dominika. Given the context within which this happens, it was difficult to do, but the author is successful in delineating a relationship based on trust and a real physical attraction. Nate is a dedicated officer whose first priority is always the safety of his agents. Ensuring that they can continue to operate, provide intelligence, and stay safe, is his sole focus, and it is on the integrity of such relationships that the agency relies as it goes about its business.

The book is going to be turned into a movie, so readers will have another opportunity to contemplate its subterranean world when it hits the screen. There are also sequels available to purchase if this one gave you the satisfying experience you expect when you buy a book. It’s topical furthermore in light of the attempted assassination in the UK with a nerve agent of ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal that caught up also his daughter Yulia.

More broadly, the nature of the intelligence services is something that everyone should bring themselves to contemplate. In times of peace these organisations continue to operate in almost total obscurity under the banner of democracy and the freedoms that it embodies, but the lengths that their officers go to to accomplish their tasks are anything but honest and open. And they are operating in our names, but we know almost nothing about them. Books like this one pull back the veil momentarily, allowing us to scrutinise the kinds of activities that are carried out for our sakes, day in and day out, in the communities we live in.

In this regard, one aspect of the book that rang false for me is when an agent, a Californian senator, uses a device given to her by the SVR to suicide when she is unmasked. The newspapers in the story report that she died from a heart attack. I’m not sure that this kind of subterfuge could reliably be carried out by the CIA on American soil. It might have happened, but I have serious doubts about it. It should not happen, however, and this is one reason why we should know more about how our intelligence agencies work. More transparency is needed. Matthews is a former CIA operative, and is almost as good as a novelist – though not quite – as John le Carre, who notably had worked for MI5 and MI6.

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