Book Review: 'The Other Woman'

Jan 2, 2019

A fun and games thriller, “The Other Woman” turns on intrigue about Russian espionage, and links present-day Russian attempts to sabotage Western democracies to the machinations years ago by, arguably, the most notorious double agent of the 20th century – the head of Britain’s intelligence service, MI6, Kim Philby. In fact, it’s now exactly 30 years since the unrepentant Philby died, in Moscow, having fled there in 1963 once he was identified as a member of the infamous British spy ring, The Cambridge Five. Silva says that Philby has been an obsession of his “for a very long time.”

But how does all this historical espionage relate to Silva’s long-time returning protagonist Gabriel Allon? Allon, a legendary art restorer, and now a man of late middle age, is making his unassuming way around a Rubens exhibition, when he first appears in chapter 2.  It seems that the old spymaster messed up in not protecting a Russian defector from a Russian hit job. And so he gets drawn into current events to find out who killed the defector, and on whose orders. The art exhibit is not irrelevant. Rubens – painter, scholar, diplomat – and spy – obviously interests Allon, now chief of secret Israeli intelligence. As he looks at Ruben’s work, he concludes that the artist has held up. “If only he could say the same for himself,” he muses. Silva is excellent, by the way, merging interior monologue and dialogue into third-person narration. And what a story this is.

Silva says in an Author’s Note that “any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.” Hah! No one at the top is called out by name, but events in Silva’s book reflect reported Russian efforts to undermine the Atlantic Alliance and Western capitalism. There’s even an unnamed new American president who admires Russia, and an unnamed “authoritarian” Russian leader, a former KGB operative. And an unnamed Russian ally, a.k.a. The Butcher of Damascas. As Silva has said in interviews, he’s a student of Russian and Soviet history but as he’s also said, “Simply put, the Russians are wonderful fictional villains. And that’s because they’re villains in real life, too.”

“The other woman” of the title is made up, a mistress of the incredibly charming, alcoholic Philby who met her in a bar in Beirut. She had a child who, as the novel opens in a prologue, was spirited away to Moscow. In the present-day narrative, the mistress, holed up in the craggy hills of Andalusia, in Spain, is writing a memoir called “The other Woman.” She has not seen her child in four decades, but she, too, is an unrepentant Russian sympathizer. All the women Philby knew loved him, including that child, now a highly placed member of British intelligence, now working as a mole in Washington, D.C., though no one knows. Yet. Did Silva foresee the real life Maria Butina, a Russian political activist working in the U.S. now charged with being a Russian agent?

If not all the characters, the settings in the book are real, including Shelter Island, where Silva locates a safe house for a spy-to-counterspy meeting, and the Schweizerhof Hotel in Bern, Switzerland, “beloved by British travelers and spies, in part for its afternoon tea service, which takes place daily in the lounge bar.” There’s also the book’s opening chapter evocatively headed: “Night Train to Vienna.”  

Of course, Allon will track down who was behind the murder and more, but how?

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