Skip to main content

A Spy’s Seduction

Mon, 02/26/2024 - 12:44
Lea Carpenter
Huger Foote

Lea Carpenter
Alfred A. Knopf, $27

At the opening of this enthralling novel, the 20-year-old British protagonist reflects on ways to improve her life: "be less boring," "take more risks," "learn more about the world." It's as if a genie has appeared in the first pages of the book to offer her three wishes, bound to be granted before the end.

That our heroine, a tabula rasa, is unnamed seems to confirm that she's simply waiting for experience to give her an identity and some complexity. She doesn't have to wait very long, having already been chosen by unknown forces to play a role in a tangled and daring espionage plot. 

She meets Marcus, the charming, much older American owner of the London estate where her mother once worked, and falls quickly, deliriously in love and into marriage. "To me, marriage was not a life sentence, it was a lifeline." Marcus, she soon learns, is a C.I.A. agent with a terminal illness. He asks his bride (and soon-to-be widow) to infiltrate the remote French compound of a brutal Russian killer named Edouard, "the king of kings," and the object of a covert mission. 

She's told that the goal is just to bring him in for questioning, but she senses that the code words for acts of violence can be mitigating, like "Evening," as this operation is called. " 'Evening' is a gentler, more humane word than, for example, the very clinical 'operation.' Evening implied rest, darkness, silence. Evening implied an end." 

But her devotion to Marcus and her longing for adventure make her a willing recruit. She reflects that "Most people take a lifetime to find themselves." Her own self-discovery, she believes, will be fast-forwarded by submitting to the assignment. "Life leads, you follow, is what I told myself." "Pretending is not a crime, it's an escape." 

Edouard is an art collector; she will pretend to be an art dealer, introduced by Raja, who has, in turn, been introduced to her by Marcus as "a liaison between the Lebanese government and 'foreign investors.' " She meets other intelligence workers, including the pseudonymous Jack and Jill, whose skills include posing convincingly as brother and sister or husband and wife; and Annabel, who advises that confidence is a weapon. "I would learn that Annabel had been involved in all kinds of things I would have called dangerous, or even insane."   

All of the operatives are seasoned performers. The narrator, however, requires a script that reinvents her as someone slightly older who studied at the International School in Florence, with a focus on the use of colors in the Renaissance. She's given a makeover by a hairdresser, and instructed about the details of her new persona. Raja tells her to "Be specific," and not to be curious. 

The compound is off the French coast. Raja gives her a rundown of its inhabitants: Edouard and his wife, Dasha; Dasha's grown daughter, Nikki, from an earlier marriage; Edouard's young son, Felix, from his own first marriage. The task seems simple at first — to get to know the family and report back to Raja about them. But nothing is simple about her visit to the compound. 

She discovers that she's pregnant, news that she decides to keep to herself, as questions arise about almost everyone's actions and motives. Who, among her handlers or the members of the household, can really be trusted? Raja refers to his team collegially as "We," but " 'We' was more than Raja, though, far more than Marcus. 'We' was weapons grade, nation state, fully funded." 

Nikki appears welcoming, with a caveat. " 'I don't bite,' she said, baring her teeth." The only person above suspicion is Felix, the motherless, precocious 9-year-old. "Felix, who, like me, played a part in a story he had not read." He quickly develops a filial affection for the new houseguest, which is reciprocated. 

Edouard is taken with her, too, and she's invited to stay on for an extended period of time. Aside from those qualities — being poor and an orphan (" 'Espionage loves an orphan' ") — that make her so suited to this apprenticeship, she has a distinct physical characteristic that's pivotal to Edouard's interest in her, that reminds him of "someone." Every evening he asks her to walk with him along the beach, and he proves to be a gentle companion and erudite mentor. He offers brief aspects of Russian and French history, and snippets about his own childhood. 

At a little landing on the cliffside, he shows her his future burial site. He asks if she's ever read the "Iliad." She admits she hasn't, so he tells her the story, patiently answering her questions about the slaughter and its repercussions. When she asks what happens in the end, Edouard says, "What most readers don't remember is the 'Iliad' does not end with war. It ends with women." In bed later, she feels happy and has what feels like an epiphany — that these people are good, "that maybe this was my new family and home."  

Still, she has become sharply observant and adept at spying — learning how to casually pry for information, figuring out the password that opens the door of a locked room. And she waits with trepidation, as the reader does, for the conclusion of the operation Evening, scheduled to take place on the night of Edouard's birthday celebration, which will be replete with fireworks.

Lea Carpenter, who has written two previous espionage novels — "Eleven Days" and "Red, White, Blue" — demonstrates an assured knowledge of that world. In an author's note, she says, "In 'Ilium,' I tried to say something about war's essential subjectivity, how a hero to one side is an assassin to another."

She's an elegant writer, with a particular talent for analogies. "Spies, like sharks, die if they stop moving." "Espionage is seduction. Your first experience of espionage can feel a lot like falling in love." "He [Edouard] was like a movie star on holiday." And "I felt a level of pride, even of cool, as if I had been given the lead in the school play."  

Told retrospectively, "Ilium" has an exciting, complicated plot, but it's a truly character-driven novel that's both emotionally charged and chillingly suspenseful.  

Hilma Wolitzer's most recent book is "Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket." She and her husband formerly had a house in Springs.         

Lea Carpenter spends summers in Southampton.

Your support for The East Hampton Star helps us deliver the news, arts, and community information you need. Whether you are an online subscriber, get the paper in the mail, delivered to your door in Manhattan, or are just passing through, every reader counts. We value you for being part of The Star family.

Your subscription to The Star does more than get you great arts, news, sports, and outdoors stories. It makes everything we do possible.