304 pages, Random House, $26
To have an oppression, even a subtle one, hovering over you most of your life makes for an uneasiness that’s not easy to explain to people who don’t share that experience. Throughout reading this book, I thought of all the #blackwhile hashtags I’ve seen over the last year. “American Spy” is not meant as a political novel, per se, but it speaks to an issue at the heart of American equality.
At various times throughout Marie’s life until her sister died, that sister, Helene, was Marie’s best friend, her caretaker while she was growing up, a confidante, and an irritant. It was because of Helene that Marie became an FBI agent after Helene’s death. Marie’s frustration with the Bureau has to do with how she is treated as a person of color and as a woman. That part of the story takes place in the late 1980s.
The story is told by Marie in a journal she is writing for her young twin sons in 1992. Her narration begins almost immediately with her having to kill an intruder in her home in the U.S. Soon after she and her sons leave for Martinique to live with her mother. That part is present tense, but the bulk of the story is about how Marie got to the point of having to kill an intruder in her house in the U.S. It is bound up with a story that takes place in Burkino Faso. It is bound up in what it means to be an American, an American spy, and a black person in America, Africa, and Martinique. It is a tale of loyalty, morality, and shifting perceptions and obligations.
This was quite a good novel. It provokes thinking. It reminds me that sometimes we Americans don’t acknowledge the elephant in the room, preferring to be ostriches, if I may mix metaphors. It’s a hard book to read in the sense that the world of a spy is never black and white. Marie is caught off balance by that flexible morality.
As an aside: There was an odd use of the word “Ms.,” a term used in the 1962 portion of the book. Although the word was apparently coined before 1962, I don’t think it was put into regular and widespread usage until the late 1960s or early 1970s.