“When I think about what Kim did what I’m always left with – and more so now that I have children of my own – is how do you walk out on your family? What compels a person to do that? And then I started to wonder what would happen if the person who walked out – regardless of their motivations – was a woman? That’s my jumping-off point.” [Charlotte Philby on her grandfather, Kim Philby, 16/9/18, The Guardian].

That’s exactly what Anna is planning to do as the novel opens, walk out on her family. It’s shocking, readers will instantly take against her but you need to see the whole picture before judging Anna.

The Most Difficult Thing is a stunning debut, wrought with tension, constantly surprising and wonderfully balanced. One of the most difficult things to achieve in a novel like this, a spy story, is that sense of randomness about life, the way things happen and people react to them, even though the plot has to be meticulously planned and Philby manages it triumphantly. It’s complex because as Philby points out, and as the title alludes to:

‘To know yourself is the most difficult thing.’ [Thales of Miletus]

That lack of self knowledge is a constant for her characters, they are as in the dark as we are. So when they act it’s a journey of self discovery as much as anything else.

Of course, this is more than a spy novel, it’s a domestic drama too. The Most Difficult Thing combines the intrigue and mystery of an intelligent spy thriller with the emotional depth of a contemporary literary novel. The story is told from the perspectives of two women, Anna (have you decided she’s a bad mother?) and Maria. Through them a tale of love, obsession, mental health and grief emerges. People who assume good spy story derive from duplicity and action are wrong, they pivot on the emotional motivations of the characters, most often love. Philby strips back the spy tropes that often detach the story from the ‘real’ world. The Most Difficult Thing envelops the espionage in real life. This is an interior journey and the story unfolds in a very different way because of the female narrators, living their lives; family, work, oh, and spying. The novel moves seamlessly back and fore in time and opens on the Thames, this is the first time Anna has left the house since the birth of the twins.

It’s two months after the operation, the abdominal scar is still painful. Anna is waiting on a bench for Harry, he’s late. That’s not unusual but she doesn’t have much time, David will be home from work soon and the nanny is looking after the girls, Rose and Stella.

Three years later, Anna is about to leave her family. She wakes early, gets up, her flight isn’t until mid-day but she’s afraid that David will somehow guess her plan, she isn’t coming back. He stirs in bed, they breakfast and finally, as she hoped he would, he suggests Anna should stay at his father’s house in Greece, no point staying in a hotel. David’s father, Clive, is not there anyway. Anna, magazine editor, mother of two, is about to leave her husband, David, the son of prolific philanthropist and business leviathan, Clive Witherall.

It was at university in Brighton that David first took a shine to Anna, he didn’t act on it, their friend Meg saw it though. In London, after graduation, Anna and Meg gets jobs as interns on a paper, they move in together, and regularly meet up with David, who is making strides in the city. Anna is drawn to journalist, Harry Dwyer, who has just broken a big story about a social justice charity being bribed by an arms dealer. Suddenly Harry is in the pub too, maybe Anna should be wary but she’s intrigued. When Harry kisses her it’s a tender moment:

‘He paused, looking at me for the first time, before nodding, his mouth breaking gently into a smile as the moon behind his head disappeared into a cloud.’

There’s a portend there. Harry has been sacked by the paper, he confides his side of the story to Anna, and she believes him, but is he telling the truth? As the relationship develops, Harry is never there when she needs him. David on the other hand rescues Anna when she has a bad trip at a night club and gets her a job through a friend at a magazine when her internship ends. Then Harry drops a bombshell, he is investigating Clive Witherall and his company TradeSmart, a logistics and commodities business, for toxic waste dumping in Equatorial Guinea, an offence that amounts to genocide. Only it’s not for a newspaper, Harry is working for MI5 or, maybe, MI6, the security services anyway. Anna offers to help, she is a good person, this is a terrible thing. Anna hasn’t met Clive but she could if she sticks closer to David. When Meg suddenly leaves for a new job in Bristol, David offers Anna a place to stay. He’s in love with her…

Maria is the daughter of Clive Witherall’s housekeeper in Greece, her early childhood was spent with David before his mother died and things changed. When she graduates she comes to London for work and meets up with David again.

A train of events is set in motion as Anna seeks to find out more about Clive but the truth is this is a journey to better understand herself. It will end in tragedy, a confrontation is inevitable, the consequences deadly. Events over take people.

This is a beautifully complex tale of character. It has the best element of a spy story; it keeps you guessing about who is on which side, who knows what, and where the truth lies. What distinguishes this novel is the deeper layered uncovering of the characters involved and their motivations.

As the hunt for information about Clive and his company progresses we also see the truth behind the relationships between the characters and as we come to understand their past we realise how manipulation and control, grief, post-partum depression, jealousy, depression and betrayal are the heart of the story. How can anyone have self knowledge when the motivation for their action is based on a lie? This is a game being manipulated by powerful forces in the shadows and their motives are hidden. Are love and good intentions in the pursuit of a bad cause tainted?

The story is partly set in Greece and so sticking with that theme:

‘Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.’ [Aristotle]

This is a very human spy story, nebulous, there are no easy answers just like the real world, and the ending will make you gasp. The Most Difficult Thing is engrossingly intriguing from the beginning. Philby has the knack for judging when to drop in a detail that gives the reader an extra tantalising morsel of the story. You get the sense that all details are important. No genre survives unless it is constantly updated and Philby brings a freshness to the spy genre, here. Reader might also like The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt by Sarah Armstrong.

I still want more traditional spy thrillers but would love more like this too, planted firmly in the real world, more rounded, really dealing with consequences, on a micro not a macro level. A fine portrayal of love, perverted, unrequited, failed. If only we could know ourselves life would be less messy.

Charlotte is the niece of Harold ‘Kim’ Philby (1912-1988), the spy who defected to Russia in 1963. One of the Cambridge five. In one sense that is not important because Philby has the makings of a fine novelist and this is the accomplished work of a fully formed writer in her own right. On the other hand, Philby admits her grandfather’s story, and maybe the hole that left in the child, is the motivation for this book. Charlotte’s own piece on following in Kim’s footsteps in Russia is a fantastic piece of personal journalism, it’s available on her own website (12/6/18), and is well worth a read. I’m reminded of how unsubtle and simplistic views of Kim Philby have been since he died in Russia. Traitor or not, motivated by good or evil, portraits of Kim Philby are not nuanced, this novel is.

Philby is a freelance journalist, she has worked at the Independent and Marie Claire and other major outlets including BBC and Channel 4.

Paul Burke 5/5

The Most Difficult Thing by Charlotte Philby
The Borough Press 9780008326982 hbk Jul 2019