The English Girl, Daniel Silva’s most recent novel featuring Israeli super-spy (think James Bond meets Jack Bauer) Gabriel Allon, tries to break out of the successful but increasingly stale formula that has made its author a best-seller. For those new to the series, Allon is an on-again-off-again “retired” Israeli spy, who moonlights as an art restorer, and is the top Secret Agent for the Israeli government when he does decide to comeback to action. After 13 books featuring Allon, originality may be hard to summon, but Silva manages to use the spy formula to his advantage to craft a suspenseful, page-turning tale. In fact, the inclusion of a fortuneteller known as the Signadora (a first for the series), is the book’s most ridiculous element, and a rarity for a series which, despite occasionally indulging in action clichés, has remained fairly realistic.
The plot revolves around the kidnapping of a young British woman named Madeline Hart, an up-and-comer in British politics, who happens to be the mistress of the British Prime Minister Jonathan Lancaster. Allon is brought in to retrieve Madeline from Corsica, the site of the kidnapping. Various twists and turns follow, and the plot quickly moves (with some slight back-and-forth) to France, London, Israel and, finally, Russia.
During the events of the story, Allon is paired up with Christopher Keller, the antagonist of the second Allon novel, The English Assassin. It’s been years since Keller has cropped up, but it’s a pleasure to see the memorable character’s return, especially in the new offbeat buddy-cop pairing between he and Allon. Although the two trust one another a little too fast, considering they once upon a time tried to kill each other, their repartee is possibly the book’s strongest asset, and here’s hoping that Keller returns in a future Allon story. Allon, Keller and Gabriel’s team of agents, known as Barak, use enough torture to make the producers of 24 and Zero Dark Thirty squeamish. One gets the feeling, however, that it’s just how guys like these work, and it’s all far from government-sanctioned.
This Gabriel Allon outing contained a good share of humor; lines like, “They were as close as two spies from opposing services could be, which meant they distrusted each other only a little” break the seriousness and tension that’s set out by the espionage and action scenes, which are in shorter supply this novel in favor of intelligence work.
The English Girl has its flaws. Silva has a terrible tendency to go on tangents that focus on his political opinions, which would not be bad if they were woven into the story. The problem is simply that Silva creates a breakneck pace, then puts the brakes on and aggravates the reader with asides that could easily be mentioned by characters or become part of the book’s political machinations (it’s a spy novel featuring Israel; it has to have some). Silva’s opinions on Israel are certainly insightful, but the awkward placements are frustrating when he had the chance to enhance his story with them. Despite these asides, the book manages to steer (mostly) clear of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict–unusual for the series, though many of its best books (such as A Death in Vienna) did. The other issue is Silva’s propensity to be slightly too referential to previous books; while a self-contained Allon world can be great fun, there are too many such references, bogging down the plot movement and character development.
I admit, I was initially hesitant about the book, and got frustrated at points–when the red herrings began to pile-up, at many of the awkward asides, and at the fact that the plot bore an eerie similarity to Silva’s 2007 novel The Secret Servant, which also revolved around a kidnapping and England. The similarities end there (apart from featuring Gabriel Allon, of course). The book is espionage-fueled fun, and an equal treat for both those looking for summer froth and for the more substance-minded.
2 thoughts on “The English Girl: A Kidnapping That’s Part Mirth, Part Mayhem”
Very nice review (Y). The English Girl was my introduction to Allon, something I’m rather sorry of now (would it have been better had I started with his earlier books), but certainly not sorry for reading it. I might even be sorry for the two days I lost whilst not being able to put the book down, but that’ll only amount to a small ‘sorry’. Call me silly, but until I heard Silva being interviewed by Elaine Charles, host of the book report radio show, I hadn’t even heard of the guy. What struck me in the interview was how much political motivation he has (apart from feeling even sillier for not knowing the full extent of the Soviet spies we have / had in the US). If not for hearing him speak I probably wouldn’t have noticed his “terrible tendency to go on tangents that focus on his political opinions”. But you’re right, thinking about it in retrospect. Fortunately I quite like the political tangents – education in fiction is a wonderful thing.
To address the issue of the signadora,,,do not criticize a culture or a tradition of which you know nothing