Book Review: Northern Spy by Flynn Berry (2021, published by Penguin Random House)
TLDR Summary: Northern Spy is a story of the contemporary IRA and a moving portrait of sister- and motherhood, and of life in a deeply divided society in Northern Ireland. Tessa works for BBC, her sister a paramedic, one day they find her sister on TV robbing with IRA. Tessa tries to find why her sister went missing, thinking she’s been snatched up by IRA to do their dirty work.
“A producer at the Belfast bureau of the BBC, Tessa is at work one day when the news of another raid comes on the air. The IRA may have gone underground after the Good Friday agreement, but they never really went away, and lately, bomb threats, arms drops, and helicopters floating ominously over the city have become features of everyday life. As the anchor requests the public’s help in locating those responsible for this latest raid – a robbery at a gas station – Tessa’s sister appears on the screen. Tessa watches in shock as Marian pulls a black mask over her face.
The police believe Marian has joined the IRA, but Tessa knows this is impossible. They were raised to oppose Republicanism, and the violence enacted in its name. They’ve attended peace vigils together. And besides, Marian is vacationing by the sea. Tessa just spoke to her yesterday.
When the truth of what has happened to Marian reveals itself, Tessa will be forced to choose: between her ideals and her family, between bystanderism and action. Walking an increasingly perilous road, she fears nothing more than endangering the one person she loves more fiercely than her sister: her infant son.
A riveting and exquisite novel about family, terror, motherhood, betrayal, and the staggering human costs of an intractable conflict, Northern Spy cements Flynn Berry’s status as one of the most sophisticated and accomplished authors of crime and suspense novels working today.”
3.5 stars. Its average on Goodreads is 3.80. My main criticisms are 1) would recategorize as a historical fiction/literary fiction, not a thriller/suspense, espionage or mystery; 2) not much spent on furthering the background context for readers (it’s a DEEP history). However, those somewhat minor qualms are eclipsed by some great expository writing, particularly that which grappled with motherhood and the insecurity bred by paramilitary occupation/terrorism.
I had a misconception about this book. I thought it was going to be heavy on the thriller/suspense, but I don’t think it was. I think it’s more of a general fiction with historical elements set in a IRA-induced atmosphere of insecurity and looming doom. However, the story moves so slowly at some points and gains traction at others. I never felt like there was much of a mystery either.
As for spying, it does come into play, but it’s not the main offering. It’s something that occurs off-page mostly, sometimes a few instances occur that we witness. Otherwise it’s mostly informant meet ups and taking care of a baby.
Things that are strong about this book — the writing in some sections reveals a single mom (Tessa) raising a kid in a dangerous atmosphere of terrorism, extortion, uncertainty, untrustworthiness of everyone, and a looming threat of explosion, violence, death, etc. The writing about terrorist recruitment touches on some of the basic tenants believed to be a good formula (lonely/isolated, radical or have sympathies, able to be extorted etc).
Bottom line – this is best for entertainment, not an education on The Troubles or IRA full context. Provides insight on the impact on the average citizen who then gets roped in. Good writing. Good idea.