Title: OUR WOMAN IN MOSCOW
Author: Beatriz Williams
Read: August 2021
Expected publication: out now
My Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟
In the autumn of 1948, Iris Digby
vanishes from her London home with her American diplomat husband and their two
children. The world is shocked by the family’s sensational disappearance. Were
they eliminated by the Soviet intelligence service? Or have the Digbys defected
to Moscow with a trove of the West’s most vital secrets?
Four years later, Ruth Macallister receives a postcard from the twin sister she hasn’t seen since their catastrophic parting in Rome in the summer of 1940, as war engulfed the continent and Iris fell desperately in love with an enigmatic United States Embassy official named Sasha Digby. Within days, Ruth is on her way to Moscow, posing as the wife of counterintelligence agent Sumner Fox in a precarious plot to extract the Digbys from behind the Iron Curtain.
But the complex truth behind Iris’s marriage defies Ruth’s understanding, and as the sisters race toward safety, a dogged Soviet KGB officer forces them to make a heartbreaking choice between two irreconcilable loyalties.
I can count on one hand the number of spy novels I have read, even though I do find the topic intriguing. But I have always found them very heavy on political agenda and brimming with macho, indestructible characters that are difficult to relate to. All these fears were unfounded with OUR WOMAN IN MOSCOW, which showed that spies can come in all shapes and sizes, and from all walks of life.
Inspired by the real life story of Donald MacLean and the Cambridge Five, a spy ring who passed on large amounts of sensitive information to Russia during the cold war, Williams created a tale that was both intriguing as well as full of heart. There are no indestructible macho heroes here but real life humans with fears and flaws. In fact, it was interesting to read about the alcohol fuelled binges and extramarital affairs by the upper-class members who made up the spy ring, and their downward spiral that would ultimately be their undoing. It was equally fascinating to see what motivated these people to betray their own country for an ideal of communism that is so far removed from the stark realities of life in the Soviet Union.
OUR WOMAN IN MOSCOW was a book totally out of my comfort zone. I admit that I was sceptical, and struggled with the slow start to the book, which took its time to build the type of character development that turned out to be crucial to the rest of the story. But once the pawns were all set in motion and the real story began, I was hooked!
Iris and Ruth’s sister relationship was a huge driving force for the story, grounding it firmly in a deeply human topic of family, love and a sense of belonging, and quiet, underrated courage. With two female leads, the story explored the topic of espionage from a completely different angle: not from the men, who are written into the history books, but the effects on their wives, their families, and the roles they played in it. I can see why Williams was fascinated with this angle, because is it not always the unspoken of heroes in history that are the most intriguing? My main gripe with history lessons was always that you rarely heard about them – the ordinary people, the ones that kept the heart of society beating, that lived and suffered thought he wars and the battles, who lost and grieved loved ones, who managed to survive against all odds.
Whilst OUR WOMAN IN MOSCOW has two timelines, one set at the beginning of WW2 and one in the 1950’s, it primarily focuses on the time of the cold war, a period not often encountered in historical fiction. It also features some real life characters, such as Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, two infamous members of the Cambridge Five. And even though Ruth, Iris and Sasha are entirely fictional characters, they fitted very well into this intriguing chapter in history. Williams goes one step further to include the POV of a Soviet KGB agent, who added extra depth to the story and also featured heavily in a clever twist towards the end, which certainly took me by surprise.
All in all, even though I found the start of the book a tiny bit slow, I was ultimately rewarded with a rich, intriguing tale of espionage seen through the eyes of twin sisters inadvertently caught up in a British spy ring. I thoroughly enjoyed it and look forward to reading more from this author in future.