Reviewed by Ian Lipke
This is a page turner! A gentle easing into a complex story, a story of friendship and betrayal, of power misused and innocence scuttled. The ideas on which the story builds are simple but are manipulated so well that the reader is immersed in mystery as dense as a London fog. No attempt is made to trick the reader, nothing exploits the reader’s gullibility. The tale is presented with honesty, but also with consummate skill.
The story opens with Evelyn having a quiet drink with her boyfriend Stephen. It is March 1948. Suddenly, Evelyn is accosted by an aggressive woman from her past. It is here we feel the first stirrings of mystery, and very subtly, the author reveals the toll that past events have had on at least one of the participants. “Evelyn was shocked by the grey in her [Julia’s] hair and the constellation of lines around her eyes and forehead” (7).
Events of July 1939 capture our interest. The author switches from one decade to the next, always developing her thesis. We watch as a nervous young school-girl on a scholarship is ridiculed by the daughters of the moneyed class and witness her effacement as her means of coping. Becoming invisible assists her progress within the War Office from which place she receives a dangerous assignment. In the progress of this task and the next, Evelyn is successful, but is made a scapegoat when an MI5 operation goes wrong. This mistreatment comes as no surprise as, at another level unseen by the men who wield power, Starford draws painful attention to the shabby treatment meted out to women.
Mr White, Evelyn’s boss at MI5, believes in his own mantra and, as we will find, practises it. “Counterintelligence is about distraction, deception, but at its core is truth. You must make your subjects believe in you and your convictions” (156), he tells Evelyn, a woman whose honesty must accommodate dishonesty as part of her war effort.
I find Rebecca Starford’s writing style compelling. Her words flow unhindered on to the page, the plot develops effortlessly, the characters have depth, often brought to the surface in glorious imagery. Evelyn is playing a double role:
She stood up and stepped away from the table and as she did her reflection moved towards the partition where the pieces of mirror met, splitting her in two. She stared at the glass transfixed (156).
Double agents are lonely people, the demands to play separate roles in distinctive social gatherings a severe strain, their lives split between their various duties. Starford’s image is a highly professional way of stating this. Her descriptions of her heroine’s ability to think quickly is on show when a young male Jew is attacked by thugs:
Here she was, worlds colliding – and now she had to choose. She thought of the texture of that silk dress, the watery slip of it through her fingers, gone. Maybe in time she would tell Julia the truth. Maybe in time Julia would forgive her (224).
Of course, the dress represents all that is good, Evelyn’s condemnation of the Jew is the evil side of her nature that duty requires she project.
Switching one’s attention across the decades as the book requires is easily accomplished because of the simplicity, and the quality, of the writing. The reader is in the right decade and space, with the correct group of people, in no time at all.
This is an excellent book that cries out to be read.
By Rebecca Starford
Allen & Unwin