A Delicate Truth

The wildlife photographer husband of a UBS staffer loved reading the new John Le Carré so much he wanted to write a review (you know its a good book when all you want to do is tell as many people as possible about it), so here it is:

When John Le Carré writes about smoke, you can be sure there’s been a large diplomatic fire somewhere.
At the back of  A Delicate Truth (Penguin), Le Carré acknowledges Carne Ross, the real-life British diplomat whose testimony in the Butler Review directly contradicted the British (and American) position on the justification behind the invasion of Iraq.

This latest novel, set in 2008 on the rock of Gibraltar, is about a counter terrorist operation/blunder that results in two innocent deaths. Remember there were over 1000 battle deaths during the Iraq War, and the two deaths here serve as a parable for that bigger picture.

In the book, a hand written receipt serves up the plot:
To one innocent dead woman………………………….nothing
To one innocent dead child……………………………..nothing
To one soldier who did his duty………………………disgrace
To Paul……………………………………………..one knighthood

Le Carré’s deep anger at the ‘War on Terror’ – which characterised  Absolute Friends in 2003 – is back. The writing is softened here and there with a gentle irony that has perhaps come with age (Le Carré is now 80). The focus this time, is on the ‘privatisation’ of war, and the ‘casualty-free’ myth, promoted by wilfully ignorant politicians: Three years after the ambiguous ‘operation’, the disgraced Special Forces soldier delivers a message from the dead.  Was Operation Wildlife the success it was cracked up to be – or a human tragedy that was ruthlessly covered up?  Summoned by Sir Christopher (‘Kit’) Probyn, retired British diplomat, to his decaying Cornish manor house, and closely observed by Kit’s daughter, Emily, Toby must choose between his conscience and duty to his Service.  If the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing, how can he keep silent?

Le Carré has become an ‘old hand’ at this kind of thing, and indeed thinking about this particular question. He has been charting our ‘secret history’ since before most of us can remember, and for me, nobody writes better. Yet in this book there is a ‘youthfulness’ to the writing style that I’ve not seen before. The tale moves quickly and effortlessly between various points of view, between past and present, and while Le Carré has always written well in the past, he has also at times been overly discursive. Here he has constructed a thriller which is not only elegant, but more succinct. It may well be one of his best books in years.


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