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the complete review - fiction
John le Carré
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- Published posthumously, in 2021
- With an Afterword by Nick Cornwell
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A- : a very good tight little thriller
See our review for fuller assessment.
|The NY Times Book Rev.
|Wall St. Journal
||K. A. Powers
|The Washington Post
Not le Carré at the height of his powers, but split between those thinking it's still worthwhile and those who are disappointed
From the Reviews:
- "Silverview takes at least 50 pages to gather momentum. (...) When the plot takes shape, though, and motives come into focus, the story comes to life and acquires depth, pace and tension. There is a retro charm about proceedings (...) as well as a welcome array of familiar le Carré tropes, from sharply drawn characters to stimulating interviews and debriefings, plus a compelling denouement involving a wanted man on the run. This book is by no means vintage le Carré. But nor is it the half-baked posthumous cash-in it might have been. Rather it is a worthy coda, a commanding farewell from a much-missed master." - The Economist
- "At the novel's heart is the question of what would drive an ageing spy, whose loyalty to the Secret Intelligence Service has never been in doubt, to turn his coat. (...) There is no denying that occasionally Silverview feels like le Carré is re-mixing some of his greatest hits but there is much fun to be had from his placing them in a contemporary setting." - Tobias Grey, Financial Times
- "Crisp prose, a precision-tooled plot, the heady sense of an inside track on a shadowy world... all his usual pleasures are here, although it can't be ignored that they're aren't always quite in sync. (...) Ultimately, Silverview unspools as a cat-and-mouse chase narrative, with the novel's dual perspective putting us in the control room, one step ahead of the characters, able to see the bigger picture, albeit heavily pixellated until the final pages. Such are the layers of irony that it's easy to forget that the sting in the tale was already delivered upfront, in an enigmatic opening shorn of vital context." - Anthony Cummins, The Guardian
- "The only important question, then, is: is Silverview any good ? Thankfully, the answer is yes. A shaky start aside -- the opening scene doesn't really earn its place in the novel -- the book settles down eight pages in, and for one last time we're in le Carré's familiar world: its themes, its principals, its impeccable style. (...) There are wobbles and coincidences here, certainly. (...) But against this, Silverview has three outstanding set pieces, any one of which more than outweighs weaknesses of plot." - Mick Herron, The Guardian
- "It is arguably Le Carré's greatest misfire since The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971), the first time he wrote outside the spy genre. (...) Alas, Silverview reads like the start of an incomplete work rather than the finished thing; an aimless evanescence as opposed to the timeless masterpieces of half a century ago. It represents the nadir of a once formidable literary power that found himself out of joint with the times after the Wall fell." - Gavin Jacobson, New Statesman
- "Typically, le Carré’s narrative warheads are lodged in his endings. The novels patiently build up to a final explosion, leaving readers with a greater sense of dismay than of triumph. Endings, for le Carré, were reckonings. This slender volume (just over 200 pages) does conclude, rather abruptly, but it lacks what le Carré has taught us to expect of an ending. You can wonder, indeed, whether he had quite got around to finishing the book." - Joseph Finder, The New York Times Book Review
- "Silverview, however, is not his best work. The ending comes too suddenly and the whole book feels half-formed. You can see the le Carré novel in there, but it remains submerged. Only one person could have brought it to completion but he, alas, is now gone." - Jay Elwes, Prospect
- "(W)hatever the publishing expediency involved, it is a very fine finale. (...) Silverview is short and brisk (roughly half the length of any of the Karla trilogy) but is the better for it. There are no longueurs. As ever with Le Carré, the most intriguing character is the most enigmatic, and most damaged. At the book’s end, a final twist emerges that results, surprisingly, not from the kind of conspiracy Le Carré loved to concoct but from a sublimely imagined cock-up." - Andrew Rosenheim, The Spectator
- "For the reader, Silverview more resembles a jigsaw puzzle. Le Carré was always a superb plotter, and here he deftly arranges a mosaic of seemingly unrelated events and conversations that cohere into a full picture only as the book comes to an end. The narrative rewards yet demands close attention (.....) Yet frustratingly, Silverview also feels unfinished—not in its narrative, but in the bits in between major plot points. Le Carré's keen observational style and grasp of psychological depth seems muted here. Characters and locations feel only sketched out (.....) Silverview, then, is more a drinkable blended whiskey than the vintage single malt le Carré completists might have been hoping for." - Dan Stewart, Time
- "The moral heart of le Carré’s final verdict on the vast apparatus of espionage and nation states is simple: the human costs of the intelligence community’s business -- in Edward’s case centring on his role in the Balkans -- are too devastating for an individual to bear. Silverview is, perhaps inevitably, slighter than le Carré’s greatest work; details are sketched, back-stories are conveyed through rapid bursts of indirect speech. There is a rather enjoyable sense of self- referential cliché." - Alex Clark, Times Literary Supplement
- "Thankfully, what le Carré has left us, is a thoroughly enjoyable book, more accessible and less complex than his greatest works. (...) John le Carré did not just leave the world an engaging novel, he also left us with a warning." - Manuel Roig-Franzia, The Washington Post
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Silverview is a posthumous publication -- "Not incomplete but withheld" at the time of author John le Carré's death, as his son explains in an Afterword.
A slim thriller, it does have a somewhat condensed feel, with, at times, series of scenes one might imagine could have been expanded, but it is nevertheless a cohesive whole, a nice, tight story.
Some reviewers have complained about the relative abruptness of the ending, but it too works -- all of a piece.
A short opening chapter has a young woman visit a man named Proctor, to personally deliver a message from her mother, and to take back a (verbal, rather than written) response.
The woman -- a young mother herself, with baby in tow -- doesn't seem very pleased about what she is doing, but dutifully does as charged.
And Proctor is clearly a spy-master, in one form or another.
But the nature of the message, and the roles of these two characters, only gradually come into focus as the novel proceeds -- though something is very clearly set in motion here.
The second chapter introduces Julian Lawndsley.
Family circumstances had meant that he had: "had to dump his hopes of university and become a runner in a City trading house", but he had made his mark there, and a fortune.
Aged thirty-three, he has taken the money, quit his City job, and moved to a seaside town in East Anglia -- to open a bookshop.
He's clearly not particularly well-read -- the name W.G.Sebald, much less his work, is unfamiliar to him -- but he seems to like the idea, and he can afford to give it a shot.
His prospects are uncertain, but he's certainly game -- though it remains an open question, as one character then observes:
Your beautiful new shop.
Will it prosper ?
I don't mean financially.
That's neither here nor there.
You're vastly rich, I'm told.
But prosper as a quality bookshop in the community ?
As a cultural sister-ship to our excellent library ?
A local, Edward Avon, comes to the shop and introduces himself, claiming to have known Julian's now deceased father -- a figure of some notoriety -- at school.
Edward is an enthusiastic man, and is soon pushing Julian to establish a 'Republic of Letters' in the shop's basement, a: "purposefully selected shrine to the most challenging minds of our time -- and of all time", with Edward happy to take charge of the selection- and acquisition work.
Maybe if they set up some computers he could work on in the shop .....
Jeremy is curious about this odd visitor, and readily falls a bit under his spell -- even as he wonders: "But what on earth was the endgame ?"
He learns that Edward's wife, Deborah, is terminally ill and close to death, and that they live in the "palatial mansion" called 'Silverview'.
(Belonging to Deborah's family, it used to be 'The Maples', but Edgar insisted on the change: "Nietzsche's house in Weimar was called Silberblick, so it had to be Silverview for us".)
When he later dines at Silverview, Deborah points out to Julian that Edward is: "terribly manipulative when he wants to be", with Julian responding:
'Are you manipulating me ?' Julian calls out cheerfully to Edward
It's fairly clear to all of them that he is, at least in some way, but Julian remains intrigued enough to play along; it all seems harmless enough, too -- even that errand Edward asks Julian to run in London .....
Meanwhile, Proctor and his mission advance as well.
A visit to a facility where he is greeted with some concern already suggests more of what is going on:
You're Proctor the Doctor, for Christ's sake.
Head of Domestic Security.
And though he acts with calm, professional efficiency, not letting on that there's really much reason for concern, there's clearly some urgency here.
(This is the kind of thing le Carré does exceptionally well: each of Proctor's encounters and interrogations -- even if they often seem simply polite conversation, that's what they are -- a perfectly rendered scene.)
Of course, the storylines converge.
It turns out that Deborah is: "The Service's star Middle Eastern agent", and that Silverview was conveniently located just down the road from a significant installation, where the thinking minds were installed in times of crisis and:
Away they went, thinking the unthinkable round the clock.
Contingency planning for Armageddon.
Where to draw the red lines.
Who to nuke when.
Edward, too, has quite the history -- "an absolute one-off, a gift from Heaven", as far as the secret service was concerned, at least at a vital point.
But times change, and experiences change people, and when Proctor comes a-knocking at some other agents' door one of them can see the writing on the wall and sighs, wondering aloud: "Oh dear. Poor Edward. What have you done now ?"
Speaking to another local with whom Edward long had an arrangement similar to the one he then has with Julian, the bookseller is told that Edward had explained his desire for such an arrangemnt with, among other things, the admission that: "I like my life in the shadows".
His dealings there, and then at Julian's, seem kosher enough -- Julian examines the computer records, and Edward certainly seems to be doing what he said he would.
And yet .....
A noose slowly tightens, the tension heightened some by Deborah being on her last legs, and by the fact that Edward clearly seems to know that something is up.
Julian continues to be drawn into the family's doings, including being invited to dinner at Silverview shortly before Deborah's death.
The Avon's daughter then also takes on larger role, becoming -- rather all too readily -- Julian's love-interest.
Proctor presses on, closing in, while Edward remains his slippery self, helped then by the death of his wife, which makes for a good excuse for a grief-stricken lack of engagement.
Julian remains a bit young and naïve, and never really gets the full measure of the man, or the situation he finds himself having been drawn into, but he's no fool and still manages quite well for himself: at the essential times, he takes the necessary steps, not only to preserve himself, but to really make a life for himself in this new, adopted place.
Ultimately, Silverview isn't so much about Julian as it is about the secret service itself.
Even its best representatives, like Deborah, are presented in at least some way rotted -- she even literally so, by the cancer that eventually kills her -- and Edward, too, is very damaged goods.
(For all of Deborah's professionalism, she seems guilty of some amateur missteps as well -- and those in charge certainly never seemed to pay sufficient attention until now, when it's in every sense too late.)
Many of the affiliated characters look back and wonder what it was all for: "we didn't do much to alter the course of human history, did we ?" one of Proctor's colleagues tells him -- adding:
As one old spy to another, I reckon I'd have been more use running a boys' club.
Proctor's investigation proceeds smoothly and incredibly efficiently, a seamless sort of professionalism to every aspect of it -- and yet the mess that he's investigating suggests an organization that is fundamentally flawed.
(A final, glaring oversight at the novel's conclusion certainly underscores that idea.)
As one person puts it about the situation Proctor is investigating: "what we're looking at here is an unparalleled, five-star clusterfuck".
So also Proctor has to wonder at the end, whether it was: "the Service's plans or its paralysis" that had been given away.
Certainly, its purpose no longer seems anywhere near as clear as it might once have been.
Silverview is a fine thriller set in the world of modern-day -- but still in so many ways old-fashioned -- world of espionage, le Carré excelling, as always, at the detail-work of it (silly though some the cloak-and-dagger stuff can seem).
Julian is a necessary figure, but also necessarily somewhat simple; the rest of the cast of characters is far more intriguing, and certainly more fun, with Julian never quite the match for them (and yet still winding up with the girl and the shop ...).
There is a somewhat funereal feel to the novel -- and especially the Service --, with, appropriately enough, much of the action then revolving around Deborah's funeral, a laying to rest that promises finality, but with le Carré cleverly not allowing it.
It's a satisfying and nicely turned end to a novel that, however modest -- especially compared to some of le Carré's more substantial works -- nevertheless counts as a success.
- M.A.Orthofer, 21 October 2021
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John le Carré:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Popular British author John le Carré (David Cornwell) lived 1931 to 2020.
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© 2021 the complete review
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