Silverview by John Le Carre

It felt a little strange to be reading Silverview, the first posthumous Le Carre novel, because his three most recent books already felt like endings. In 2016, Le Carre published a set of biographical essays. 2017’s A Legacy of Spies, was both a prequel and sequel to Le Carre’s most famous novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), which felt like tidying up loose ends. Then came Agent Running in the Field in 2019, the year before Le Carre passed away in 2020.

The figure at the centre of Silverview is Julian, a bookseller who seems strangely unsuited for that role. He has fled life in the city to set up a bookshop on the Norfolk coast, yet has little feeling for literature – he is unaware of who Sebald is. Everyone in the book has secrets, and Julian’s are not directly addressed, which fits the unsettling mood. He is obviously well-off, but there is no indication of why he has quit his job.

The plot is one Le Carre has followed before, with an investigator, Stewart Proctor, tracking down a leak. The scene with ex-spies being interrogated in their suburban retirement house feels very familiar. Meanwhile, Proctor is dealing with his own betrayal, certain that his wife is having an affair.

Le Carre has asked repeatedly if the world of spies and subterfuge does anything to improve the world. This time, the question feels wearier than ever. Towards the end of the book there is a funeral. Old spies descend upon the village church, the Service paying towards the catering. A man from the service gives an eulogy for the late spy, baffling the people who knew her in the village.

There is a strange moment where the Proctor is in a US/UK airforce base. He visits an obsolete underground bunker, and the image is heavy with significance. This buried relic represents a war that has not just passed but now seems pointless.

Julian is an innocent, drawn into this game of spies through a neighbour. Edward is a classic Le Carre type, caught between conviction and con-artist. Through his relationship with Edward, Julian comes to the attention of some very powerful people. It is made apparent to him that if he does not comply with what they need, he will be very crushed. The same service that aims to protect normal life is quite capable of destroying such lives to reach its goal.

The ending is ambiguous. That seems fitting as the conclusion to what is likely to be Le Carre’s final novel. But it is even more resonant given the doubts Le Carre has expressed in this novel and throughout his career. The world of espionage has no easy answers.

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