Review: A Perfect Spy

Description from Amazon:

Over the course of his seemingly irreproachable life, Magnus Pym has been all things to all people: a devoted family man, a trusted colleague, a loyal friend—and the perfect spy. But in the wake of his estranged father’s death, Magnus vanishes, and the British Secret Service is up in arms. Is it grief, or is the reason for his disappearance more sinister? And who is the mysterious man with the sad moustache who also seems to be looking for Magnus?
 
In A Perfect Spy, John le Carré has crafted one of his crowning masterpieces, interweaving a moving and unusual coming-of-age story with a morally tangled chronicle of modern espionage.

Buy the book.

 

This was my first John Le Carre novel. I had some trepidations going in, and so I consulted a wide swath of Le Carre fan sites to figure out how to jump in (read: I Googled a bunch of stuff, but with a keen eye). From what I could find A Perfect Spy seemed pretty high up on everyone’s list and received strong accolades from various individuals who had dived into the Le Carre literature at the same place.

I can tell you, the writing style is … jarring. Since it shifts perspective, the reader follows behind the lens of one of the following:

  1. The main character in the present.
  2. The main character’s recollection of the past.
  3. The main character’s spy boss.
  4. The main character’s wife.

I think that’s it, from what I remember. Now, here’s where it can get a little confusing: sometimes, the main character, Magnus Pym, uses the third person to discuss his past. Sometimes, he uses first-person. It could get incredibly disorienting as a reader–if this doesn’t bother you, then skip to the next paragraph. But for me, it constantly interrupted the flow of the book and drove me absolutely batty. We all carry in our own baggage, so this might not bother everyone. Fair warning, though.

Beyond that, the book is an absolute masterpiece. If you’ve ever craved a spy novel that fleshes out the entire back-story of a master spy, then this is perfect. The characters are flawed. They have motivations. They have traumas. They have purpose–both thematically and in the story itself. And through it all, Le Carre guides the reader through the life of Magnus Pym. You can actually see how he becomes the man who exists in the present-day chapters. It’s a blast. It lets you empathize with him and at the same time question his judgment.

That kind of challenge is exactly what I crave from fiction. I want to understand the character and empathize with them. I want them to challenge me and frustrate me and occasionally please me. Magnus Pym does all of this, and in writing his “explanation” to his son he lets us see the world he grew up in, and a father who both loved him and disadvantage him.