YOUNG PHILBY

Written by Robert Littell

Review written by Stav Sherez

Stav Sherez is a British novelist whose first novel, The Devil's Playground,was published in 2004 by Penguin Books and was shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey Dagger. Sherez's second novel, The Black Monastery, was published by Faber & Faber in April 2009. From 1999 to 2004 he was a main contributor to the music magazine Comes with a Smile. From December 2006 he has been literary editor of the Catholic Herald.


YOUNG PHILBY
Duckworth
RRP: £16.99
Released: 8th November 2012
Hbk

"The most underrated writer around" has become one of the most over-used phrases in book reviewing, yet no other description better fits Robert Littell who, since 1973, has been quietly producing some of the best and most challenging works in spy fiction. His cool, ironic and poised novels unfold with the labyrinthine ingenuity of a complex chess gambit yet are always compulsively readable.

Littell was always more interested in the Soviets than the West and his early novels all deal with double agents, triple agents, and the exigencies of the cold war. Before Tom Rob Smith made Russia a popular place for crime writers to visit, Littell had already been there and staked his claim.

Littell's novels of the last decade have taken things a step further, first with the masterful The Company, a 700 page history of the CIA told through the eyes of three recruits as they make their way through the tumultuous events of the 1950s, 60s and 70s - but it is Littell's next novel, Legends, which is his masterpiece. A cross-breeding of Philip K Dick and John le Carre, Legends was a furiously plotted and darkly lyrical spy thriller but also an existential meditation on identity and persona, and what better vessel to investigate this than the spy, the man or woman with no fixed identity, who lives in a shifting reality of cover stories and fake histories?

Young Philby takes up the reins from Legends and continues this investigation through a daring and original structuring device. The novel depicts Cambridge spy, Harold (Kip) Philby's life from 1933 to 1945 through a series of chapters, each narrated by a different individual from Philby's life.

We first meet Philby as the callow 'Englishman' in 1933 Vienna, the chapter narrated by a woman communist organiser who later became his wife. Philby is young and inexperienced but committed to the cause of freeing Austria from the fascists. Back in London, the next chapter is told by Philby's university friend and future cohort, Guy Burgess.  We follow Philby through the 1930s as he's recruited by Soviet intelligence, his time in Spain as a reporter in the Civil War, and his work during the Second World War. Each chapter is narrated by a different person and each person sees what they want to see in Philby, moulding him to their desires, making it impossible to pin down the 'real' Kim Philby, and asking if we can even legitimately talk about a 'real' Kim Philby. The different voices are written beautifully in Littell's elegant, clipped, and ironic prose, from the rambunctious ramble of his wife through the chummy bonhomie of Burgess to the cold authority of Philby's Soviet controller.

There is a coda where Littell proposes a striking and bold new interpretation of who Philby really was and, in typical Littell fashion, leaves the reader unsure of even the most basic certainties of history.

Young Philby, through its audacious structure and sure sense of narrative, is a trenchant and intelligent meditation on identity and the mystery spinning at the heart of every spy novel. A quiet masterpiece.

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