Tightrope – Simon Mawer

Cover of Tightrope by Simon Mawer

I bought this book because I wanted to see what modern concepts of ‘good’ historical fiction looked like – it won the Walter Scott prize in June 2016, so someone must have been impressed.

I have to say, if this is where the genre has got to, there is yet room for improvement. However, I should caveat this review with the fact that I have not read the novel which precedes Tightrope and introduces the character of Marian Sutro. I don’t think that should preclude either having a valid opinion or being able to enjoy the book as a stand-alone work though.

First impressions weren’t good – the cover of my edition was a photo of a woman and a man stood (somewhere? Not clear – possibly next to the Seine) with their backs to the camera, meant to imply a world of espionage and intrigue. I didn’t think it succeeded.

The book is ostensibly a spy thriller, set in 1950s London but featuring numerous flashbacks and forwards. I say ‘ostensibly’ because there weren’t as many spies or thrills as the reader might reasonably expect for their £7.99. It reminded me of nothing so much as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – not le Carre’s classic novel, but rather the dull, noodling and achingly-slow film of 2011 in which nothing much happens, for quite a long time, until someone is revealed as being a mole and it ends. Ho and indeed hum, as Mark Kermode might say (though he would disagree violently with my view of that film!)

I am capable of appreciating subtlety, silences and stares – good grief, I’ve even been known to enjoy the odd Brecht play – but I do think there’s a balance to be struck in thriller writing between introspective character development and, you know, pace. For my tastes, Mawer does not achieve this. There’s just far too much focus on internal angst, longing and bed-hopping.

The author is forced to reach back into characters’ histories for most of what counts as ‘action’ in the narrative and maddeningly ducks the main opportunities his story line offers by letting the camera drift off into some other corner at key points. Overall, I guess  what I am describing is a lack of any real sense of jeopardy (not helped by the book’s opening scene featuring Sutro as an old woman).

Then there’s his writing style: I enjoy a good simile as much as the next man, but it’s easy to over-dose on them if they are an author’s go-to rhetorical device. I wonder if Simon at any point thought of hitting CTRL+F and typing the word ‘like’? It would have returned a high number!

What did I like about Tightrope? I thought the characters, Sutro’s sexual liberalism notwithstanding, to be well observed and to behave without anachronistic modern views, although I’m not sure I buy the motivation for leaking nuclear secrets to the Russians (to even things up and prevent Western dominance…)

This probably says as much about my maturity as a reader as it does about the quality of the material, but I tried very hard to enjoy Tightrope without feeling that the book was putting in the same effort, an the unequal division of labour which would cause any relationship to founder.


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