Novel: Northern Spy by Flynn Berry

Flynn Berry’s work is new to me, but based on Northern Spy (2021) I may well be back for more. Set in Northern Ireland, this one charts an unlikely espionage career for one Tessa Daly, a BBC news producer and single mother whose life couldn’t be more ordinary. That all changes when Tessa’s sister Marian turns up on the news, committing crimes in the name of the Irish Republican Army. At first, Tessa can’t believe her sister, a dedicated paramedic, could be an IRA terrorist. But the more she learns the more worried she becomes, until she finds herself entangled in a maze of espionage that reveals unexpected sympathies with the paramilitary organization her sister allegedly joined, even as the group’s actions force her to extreme lengths to protect her family.

I’m always on the lookout for new spy novelists, and while I don’t get the impression spy fiction is Berry’s focus, I quite enjoyed Northern Spy, which hybridizes intriguing espionage with subtle, character-driven mystery. As spy stories go, its focus is refreshingly small, interested more in the personal implications of its conflict than the greater political stakes. This keeps the narrative tight on Tessa, whose quiet, unexceptional life is revealed to be steeped in unexplored political conditioning that events finally force her to confront. Her goals aren’t particularly interesting—she basically wants to protect her family, a desire that motivates her every decision. Her chief concern, understandably, is her infant son, Finn; it says more about me than it does about Berry’s writing that I found Tessa’s protectiveness of Finn tiresome. (Evidently, I have zero paternal instinct; for me, babies are almost too abstract to be characters). But Tessa is an admirable protagonist, and her relationships with both Marian and her mother are quite well drawn, set against a tense, slow-boiling backdrop. A brisk, entertaining read.

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