By John le Carre
Fiction/Viking/Paperback/208 pages/$34.24/Major bookstores
4 out of 5
A young man gives up his trading career to sell books in a sleepy seaside town. Little does he know that his bookshop is embroiled in an espionage breach.
Such a premise would be delightful in itself. That it belongs to the last complete novel left behind by spy fiction grandmaster John le Carre, who died last year aged 89, is nothing short of a wonder.
Julian Lawndsley, 33, has escaped London's rat race to run a bookshop in a small East Anglian town. Unfortunately, he is neither well-read nor possessed of any book-selling experience. "How's custom, darling," a neighbour asks mordantly, "or should I not speak ill of the dead?"
Enter Edward Avon, a charismatic, eccentric retiree who seems keen to impart literary wisdom to Julian. "Rings of Saturn is a literary sleight of hand of the first water," he enthuses of the 1995 novel, also set in East Anglia, by the German writer W. G. Sebald, "a depressive like the best of us, now, alas, dead. Weep for Sebald".
Edward lives with his sickly wife, Deborah, and prickly daughter, Lily, across town in a house called Silverview. He claims an old friendship with Julian's late father and, before long, has charmed his way into the bookshop's operations.
At the same time, another strand of the tale is unfolding in London, where Stewart Proctor, the secret service's "bloodhound", is investigating what has been euphemistically dubbed a "technical failure".
The world of the bookshop and its provincial neighbourhood is sketched in marvellous detail; so, too, is the world of the Proctors, an upper-class family of spies in whose household domesticity and tradecraft nestle comfortably.
They keep their secure line, "the green phone", in the scullery under a tea cosy. "So are we all to be blown up?" Mrs Proctor inquires casually of her husband before bed. "Is it one of those again?"
If one were looking for the perfect novel with which to send off le Carre, Silverview is not it. It is weighted in favour of its front half and comes up light at the end.
Yet, it contains moments of such brilliance, such displays of le Carre's signature wit and nuance, that you want to put it down with a wry chuckle and say: "There he is."
Compared with the last two novels he published before his death - the bleak closure of A Legacy Of Spies (2017) and the bitter fury of Agent Running In The Field (2019) - Silverview is, to borrow a line from its ending, "content, if not radiant".
Here, too, are the ageing, embittered spies of old wars, asking themselves what a lifetime of subterfuge and amorality was all in aid of. But this is no raging against the dying of the light.
Le Carre may be off the top of his game here, but one is still reminded how splendid a player he was. His novels were just as much about critical reading as they were about espionage. What Edward says of Sebald also applies to him: His literary sleight of hand was of the first water. Weep for le Carre.
If you like this, read: Transcription by Kate Atkinson (Transworld, 2018, $17.12, Books Kinokuniya). In 1940, orphan Juliet Armstrong, 18, is hired to do transcription for MI5 and later recruited to spy on Nazi sympathisers.