The life of a spy
Rod Barton, Black Inc., $ 32.99
Rod Barton had dreamed of becoming a secret agent since he was a boy with the Boy Scouts. He achieved his dream, as his memoirs demonstrate at length – often in a quirky, quirky style – but there must have been times when the old adage about being careful what you want would have occurred to him.
His specialty was the Middle East and his knowledge of weapons came to good use as he rose through the ranks of Australian intelligence. But it also led to confrontations with the government and the CIA over what he calls the “fiasco” of the second Iraq war and the failure of the secret service to address weapons of mass destruction.
Much of his career was routine, but there was danger – much of it from alcohol when he was throwing Christmas parties in London and other times in bombed bunkers in Iraq.
The Beijing office
Eds., Trevor Watson and Melissa Roberts, Hardie Grant, $ 32.99
When Paul Raffaele came to Beijing in 1973 as Australia’s first journalist in Mao’s China, he had the feeling that he was stepping into a novel by John le Carre. And much of his contribution to this great collection of articles by Australian journalists who have worked there at various times reads like one.
His arrival is evidenced by the departure of Mike Smith, the last Australian journalist to leave China as relations between the two countries sank to new depths. Both are lively, stimulating and clearly come from intense, lived experiences.
As does Ali Moore’s reminder of being there at a crucial moment when, as it puts it, the CCP made a deal with the people – wealth for obedience. Likewise, Helene Chung’s memories of China in the mid-1980s have a real immediacy. Memories from journalists who are there.
Marco Missiroli; trans., Alex Valente
Weidenfeld & Nicholson, $ 32.99
Margherita and Carlo are happily married, but even before we observe this happiness, we are shown that Carlo is attracted to one of his students, as is Margherita by her physiotherapist. Both characters are passionate about their marriage and each other, but Marco Missiroli uses intelligence and empathy to consider how and why such people may wander beyond the boundaries of their promises.
First published in Italian in 2019 as Fedeltà and already being produced with Netflix, this subtle novel has been hailed as an insightful study on marital infidelity, but it also goes beyond the subject of fidelity in traditional marriage to different types of sexual fidelity to investigate. And it touches on more abstract notions of loyalty and betrayal, including the idea of loyalty to a family, idea, place, or sense of one’s true self.
Michael Farris Smith
No Exit Press, $ 29.99
This novel invents a backstory for Nick Carraway, the narrator of Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby, and guides him through experiences that would surely produce a deeper, darker Nick than the ironic viewer of the original.
He sees the World War I trenches in terrible detail, has a romantic Parisian interlude that goes bad, and then spends some nightmarish post-war years in New Orleans before moving to New York.
In the increasingly popular practice of writing a novel based on other novels, some authors inadvertently reveal their limitations while others may produce a story that works for itself or adds something new and valuable to our sense of the original . Michael Farris Smith falls over the line in this effort, but more in spite of his Fitzgeraldean inspiration than because of it.
Wildfire, $ 32.99
Most people remember the Minotaur as a monstrous half-man and half-bull, living in a labyrinth in Crete and ultimately being killed by the Greek hero Theseus with the help of the young princess Ariadne.
Jennifer Saint told this story from Ariadne’s point of view in much greater detail, albeit in simple language. In doing so, she stays true to the details of the original myths, but shifts the focus of the story to the female characters, who more than most people remember, while creating a Theseus who is by no means the hero he is usually cracked to be.
Ariadne’s mother Pasiphae has a terrible time with it in all versions of this myth, for she is also the mother of the Minotaur, while her little sister Phaedra also pulls more than a short straw. It’s essentially a retelling of the story, but it also goes deeper.
Viet Thanh Nguyen
Corsair, $ 32.99
His first novel, The Sympathizer, won a Pulitzer Prize for Viet Thanh Nguyen in 2016, and The Committed is a sequel with the same nameless narrator who spent most of the earlier novel spying for North Vietnam, first in South Vietnam and then in the United States.
On his return to Vietnam, he and his friend Bon are captured, tortured and “reformed” before they escape. At the beginning of The Committed, the narrator and Bon came to France as refugees and find themselves in a criminal world of drugs and violence.
But the spy thriller appearance of this novel is really just the packaging for ideas about colonization, capitalism, and nationalism that delve deep into the complexities of these things and their often murderously horrific practices. This is the rare thing, an action-packed novel of ideas. It is intellectually subtle and demanding, a brilliant if at times difficult read.