Victor Maskell has been betrayed: in Parliament, a revelation of his double, perhaps quadruple, life of espionage; in the press, photographs and inch-high type. But why now - as he enters his seventies, diagnosed with cancer, twenty years into "retirement" - and by whom? To figure it out before his time runs out, and in case public vindication is somehow possible, he begins to write his memoirs - to scrape away at the "toffee-coloured varnish and caked soot left by a lifetime of dissembling." Maskell's need to understand, to explain, to atone, to not atone, is what fuels John Banville's stunning new novel - trenchantly funny, vividly evocative, complex in precisely the way Maskell himself is complex: clear-sighted yet blinded by old love and desire, expertly duplicitous yet terrified that he may not have been a master of the game after all. "Who could have remained inactive in this ferocious century?" Maskell asks. Certainly not he: scholar and adventurer; military man and curator of art; breaker and keeper of codes; Royalist and Marxist; in secret service to both the Comintern and the British monarch; husband and father, and lover of men; Irishman, Englishman, man of indeterminate national alliance. Dissolution and drinking at Cambridge during the 1920s, recruitment and earnest Marxism in London during the 1930s, loyalties and ideals tested during World War II and the Cold War. It all comes back to Maskell, and he sets it down in brilliant detail and with scathing perceptiveness. But the more he remembers, the more he's compelled to wonder if these fragmented lives add up to one life entirely. After all, the attraction - and the exhilarating terror - of being a spy was that "nothing,absolutely nothing, is as it seems." Taking the Cambridge spies as his starting point for Victor Maskell, Banville quickly moves beyond the mere facts of espionage toward the intricate heart of the spy himself.
Format/pages: paperback / 367 pages
Publisher: Random House USA