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Review: An Unlikely Spy, by Rebecca Starford
Ecco, 2021. 338 pp. $28

Evelyn Varley has made something of herself, she thinks. It’s late 1939, and the girl from the wrong side of the tracks in Lewes, East Sussex, has come a long way since she won a scholarship to a prestigious boarding school, then Oxford, where she took Firsts in German and literature. Along the way, she befriended Sally Wesley, a girl from a wealthy family that practically adopted Evelyn, showering her with the warmth, hospitality, excursions, gifts, and spirited conversation she never received at home. And when war breaks out, Sally’s father recommends Evelyn to a friend in government, and presto! she gets a job with the War Office.

At first, that means typing and filing, nothing glamorous, and her office is situated in an old prison, to boot. But eventually, MI5 recruits her to infiltrate an organization of British Nazis. Appalled by their views, especially their violent anti-Semitism, Evelyn nevertheless steels herself to the task, unaware that she will have to choose between her conscience, loyalty to country, and her lifelong friends.

The Olympia Exhibition Centre, London, where a British Union of Fascists meeting in 1934 turned violent, costing the movement support. At its height, the BUF boasted more than 50,000 members. (Courtesy Kenneth Allen, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Character-driven thrillers are unusual in themselves, and this one’s terrific. Don’t be put off by the opening, a somewhat confusing section that takes place after the war. I think the author wants you to know that something shocking has happened, to hold your interest, after which the novel goes into Evelyn’s back story. It’s a prologue by another name, and I understand why Starford takes this approach, but it feels clumsy in parts, not at all like the rest of the book. The narrative sorts itself out soon enough, though, and you see how Evelyn unwittingly trains for her future career.

At her boarding school, as the poor girl, she’s the “charity case,” the butt of vicious hazing. Sally rescues her somewhat, being an outsider too, a connection I find a little hard to believe. But if it’s a false note, it’s the only one. Evelyn succeeds socially on her own where Sally doesn’t, by copying their tormentors and earning their acceptance. The price she pays is steep, however — forgetting who she is, learning her new friends’ contempt for her origins, and hiding behind a dissembling heart. Years later:

Sometimes, as Evelyn lay in her bed upstairs, she was wracked by loneliness. She loved her parents, but now she could see them for their true selves, free from the burnish of childish idolatry or just plain youthful ignorance. She knew her father belittled her because he couldn’t face the idea of her one day looking down on him, and she recognized how meager her mother’s existence had become, counting out her shillings at the bakery and going without new clothes or books or an outing to a restaurant, refusing any activity that she deemed indulgent. Evelyn was embarrassed by this puritan denial of even the smallest forms of pleasure. She didn’t want her life to be a mere transaction; she wanted to feel the workings of experience deep in her bones. She knew her parents sensed this change in her, but since she could never tell them about what really happened at school, she had to live with the knowledge that they believed she had actually become this person and was not merely wearing a disguise.

Consequently, she’s got the makeup of a perfect operative, capable of assuming a necessary guise, belonging nowhere, therefore adaptable. But once again, she pays an extortionate price for the thrill of being useful, the knowledge that she’s standing up for her beliefs, which leads her to deceive people, including herself.

What a brilliant portrayal, the better for Evelyn’s hesitations and insecurities. So often, spies in fiction have ice water for blood and seldom make mistakes, only bad bets because they’ve been misled or have no choice. Evelyn’s a different sort altogether, struggling not to engage emotionally, wondering every second if she’s overplayed her hand, and unsure what she’s accomplished, if anything. Unlike many in her trade, she shies away from damaging anyone, unaware that she’s done it despite herself. Sally’s fiancé, a handsome, thoughtless brute, thinks of pain as an “accolade,” Evelyn believes, “something to be earned, and something to be inflicted.” She despises him but has yet to learn how the manipulations she’s assigned to perform work the same way. The reader senses what she doesn’t.

Starford has a gift for active physical description that evokes feelings — there are some truly lovely passages —and she’s at her best among the British Nazis. Their rallies, riots, harangues, and even their quiet dinner parties curdle the blood. Their belief beyond all persuasion that Jews have destroyed their lives and run the world has never gone out of style, so that the historical feels like now. I can’t help think that the author has intended a tacit comparison to alt-right conspiracy theorists, no matter what human target they favor.

This chilling, moving novel, at once character-driven and a page-turner, deserves attention.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.