I read this book last year when the hardback was published and I wrote a glowing review at that time, Wilson is an exceptional writer of spy fiction. Several months on, revisiting my thoughts on the novel for the paperback release, my admiration for South Atlantic Requiem is undiminished. If anything I’m more certain that this is a classic of the genre. A spy novel that will resonate with readers who lived through the Falklands War and the Thatcher era when the novel is set. For those not there it’s an eye opener, a window onto the past that doesn’t gloss over a murky period of British history. I would rate the Catesby novels (there are six) as one of the very best spy series out there. They are a chronicle of the times, a perspective on twentieth century Britain as reflected in our intelligence world, the secret underbelly of our establishment and a significant part of the political reality of the day. South Atlantic Requiem doesn’t just tell a fascinating story, it’s more ambitious than that. It’s a social critique, concerned with wider societal mores, in the vein of le Carré. A quiet, yet forceful, anger emanates from the pages of this novel, it is a coruscating indictment of government policy, failure and duplicity.
As an entertainment, South Atlantic Requiem is as good as espionage thriller writing gets, tensely paced and intelligent it also packs an emotional punch. I can’t rank it against the other novels in the series because for me this is volume six in an ongoing story, another chapter, and each novel is consistent and brilliant. This on-going story of British intelligence through the Cold War is thought provoking and whether you agree with Edward Wilson’s interpretation of the past, or disagree, there are arguments here that deserve to be heard and engaged with.
Wilson is now at the forefront of spy writing, keeping it relevant and contemporary. He has chosen a different approach to Mick Herron, who lampoons the establishment, but they both shed light on the kind of society we have become and how we got here.
Spy stories can be technically correct, intricately plotted and explosive and at the same time lifeless. The beating heart of a good spy story is in the motivation of the characters and South Atlantic Requiem is a powerful love story. That more than anything makes it a compelling espionage thriller. It’s a novel to be savoured for its insight and story telling with strong characters, deft plotting and an impeccable sense of time and place – I loved its sharp intelligence and its emotional intensity, the complexity and depth.
This fictional drama is riveting, as is the unfolding of world events, griping even though you already know how things turned out. Wilson has created a set of memorable perennial character in Catesby, his wife, Henry Bone and Kit Fournier – their relationships span the Cold War. In South Atlantic Requiem Fiona and Ariel are lovers and their very personal story gets caught up in the march of history. Wilson engages both the head and the heart in their plight, how far will these pawns allow themselves to be moved around the board before they rebel?
I think readers will re-evaluate events in the run up to the Falklands War in the light of South Atlantic Requiem. Wilson makes sense of the events in different parts of the world in relation to each other and he has a grasp of Cold War attitudes, events are seen from several perspectives giving a rounded picture of the past. Wilson’s research is rigorous. The totality of the series amounts to a survey of East-West relations post WWII. Wilson brings a fresh eye to the relationship between the US, Britain and Russia and has given more prominence to the role of China in the Cold War. His take on the Cold War is original, his arguments well reasoned and his view point serious. He gives the reader pause for thought.
The Falklands War happened thirty-six years ago (still within living memory), but time does provides perspective and this novel is timely. Wilson addresses why Britain went to war when it was already negotiating to relinquish sovereignty of the islands in the future and why warnings of an Argentinian attack were ignored. The Argentinian military junta used las Malvinas to foster a domestic unity (the only thing the Peronists, the left and the right agreed upon), the country was in the middle of an economic crisis and facing growing dissent over the plight of the disappeared (30,000 people murdered by the junta). In Britain, Thatcher’s austerity was in full swing; defence cuts led the Argentinians to believe that Britain would not defend the Falklands. Just as Thatcher was losing her grip on her party and Conservative MPs were losing their nerve, Britain went to war. It played well domestically.
1982, Catesby attends the funeral of his friend, the colonel, at Holy Trinity Church in Blythburgh on a black shuck day. The Falklands War has ended but it doesn’t feel much like victory for the SIS man.
1979, in the past Catesby’s old mentor at King’s recommended him for SOE, now Catesby is looking for recommendations for the service. There is one candidate that stands out, Fiona, unconventional and Bloomsbury through and through, maybe she reminds Catesby of his wife. Budget cuts mean Catesby offers Fiona an NOC post (non-official cover – unprotected if it all goes wrong).
1981, Fiona is researching for her PhD on Borges in Argentina, she has fallen for a naval pilot, Ariel Solar. Their affair is intense, his wife dies and Fiona becomes part of Argentina’s elite. She is also one half of SIS’s very limited resources on the ground in Latin America. As the war approaches, Fiona questions the information she is sending back to London. In conflict where will Fiona’s loyalties lie, with her country or her love? When HMS Endurance is withdrawn from the South Atlantic it emboldens the junta to strike.
1980, Brompton Oratory, shortly after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Catesby is meeting a KGB officer known by the epithet SLIME, a would-be defector. Catesby is not sure he trusts the man but his intelligence is good. He talks about Russian arms sales to Argentina, including radar jamming equipment. Catesby wants to keep SLIME in place as he is given a posting to Argentina.
Wilson captures the dilemma Fiona faces and the political mood of the time, we glimpse it here:
“Catesby remembered a conversation with an ex-Tory minister comparing Eva Perón and Thatcher. The former minister had confided, laughing: ‘The difference is that the “shirtless ones” who voted for Thatcher will remain shirtless’.
However, the inclusion of the US, Russia and other South American perspectives makes the story far more interesting. I have concentrated on the political story but I don’t want to give the impression that this is not a tragic love story and a fascinating spy tale too.
Paul Burke 5/5
South Atlantic Requiem by Edward Wilson
Arcadia Books 9781911350590 pbk May 2019