Spies, Camelot, needlework and time travel: books read

AGENT RUNNING IN THE FIELD was John Le Carré’s final novel (he wrote Silverview much earlier), focusing on Nat, an agent handler recently returned to London from years working for MI5 abroad. His wife Prue worked with him but now she’s free to resume her old career as an activist lawyer while Nat settles in as head of a minor London station, relaxing by playing badminton at his local country club. In one plotline, one of Nat’s underlings proposes a sting on a well-connected Russian oligarch; in the other, he befriends Ed, a skilled badminton player eager to take on the local champ.

Surprisingly the two plotlines don’t really knit together except by coincidence, but the book still works. It has a lot of the author’s post-9/11 anger, this time directed at the US for electing Trump and the UK for signing off on Brexit. It also has probably the happiest marriage of any of Le Carré’s protagonists. If not one of his classics, certainly a solid finish to his career.

QUEEN OF NONE by Natania Barron is well executed but not my sort of thing — grim, gritty takes on Camelot don’t work for me, but that’s not her fault. The protagonist, Anna, is a twin sister to Arthur (referenced in passing by Geoffrey of Monmouth), cursed by Merlin to be queen of none, forever forgotten. After years enduring her marriage to King Lot she’s returning as a widow to Camelot where her half-sister Morgan recruits her for schemes against Merlin and Arthur marries her to Lancelot for his own scheming motives. Like I said, not right for me but it’s personal preference not for any flaws in the book.

THREADS OF LIFE: A History of the World Through the Eye of A Needle by Clare Hunter looks at how embroidery, sewing and needlework have, at various points in history, been status symbols, works of art, protests (women ranging from slaves to Japanese POWs using needlework to express their rage at imprisonment), gendered (after embroidery stopped being an upper class status symbol it became Ordinary Women’s Work), deeply traditional and occasionally magical. Unfortunately Hunter recounts this in a plodding style with too many personal reminiscences, plus the book is devoid of illustration (she does throw in a list of online sources at the end). Informative but sub-par.

William O’Farrell’s REPEAT PERFORMANCE is the basis for the 1947 film, so I’ve long been curious to read it. The recently reissued novel has a man running from the cops after murdering his lover (they gender-flipped the lead role for the film), thinking that if he could just get this past year to do over, he could change everything .. and then it happens (unlike the movie it’s not on New Year’s Day and it ends up ambiguous whether it was all in his head). Now he has a chance to avoid his affair, prevent his unstable wife’s suicide, stop his cross-dressing buddy from getting committed … but of course, things don’t work out that easily.

The protagonist is considerably less innocent than in the film though not everything that goes wrong is his fault. It’s quite obvious, for instance, that his wife is taking a long walk on a short pier regardless of what he does (and cheated on him first). Overall satisfactory but the ending disappoints — I think I get what O’Farrell was going for but it doesn’t quite work.

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