Vera Kelly is posing as a Canadian student in Buenos Aires in 1966, but she is actually working for the CIA, monitoring the regime for alleged KGB links. She is using her technical skills to plant bugs and monitor conversations, and forming relationships with students who are suspect. However, when the coup that everyone is expecting comes, here escape does not go to plan and she is forced to improvise.
While most of the plot of Who Is Vera Kelly? occurs in the Buenos Aires story, there are alternating chapters giving vignettes of her life from adolescence in the US up to the point that she travels to Argentina. These show the genesis of Vera Kelly as spy, as she comes to terms with a troubled family history and her growing awareness of her attraction to women.
I love the distinctive voice in this novel. The writing is beautifully understated. There are also some wonderfully atmospheric descriptions of Buenos Aires and of Vera’s time in New York, struggling to connect to the lesbian scene. You see how her earlier struggles to blend in have shaped her ability to adopt different personas as a spy, and her intuitive grasp of the loneliness and sense of estrangement of others.
I think it will appeal more to literary than thriller readers. While Vera does demonstrate her tradecraft, there aren’t any major twists or revelations, either in personal or political terms. The second half of the novel, when the tension should have ramped up, actually felt less interesting. I was also left with one or two questions about the plot. However, there is a growing sense of the cruelty and absurdity of the players across the political divide.
Who Is Vera Kelly? is a literary coming-of-age story, told with spare, stylish prose and a vivid sense of period and place. There is now a second novel, Vera Kelly is not a Mystery, in which she becomes a private investigator in New York. While this book doesn’t obviously feel like a series opener, I’d be interested to see where Vera Kelly goes next.
I received a copy of Who Is Vera Kelly? from the publisher via Netgalley.
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