book talk, historical fiction

Book Talk: American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson

IMG_8097American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson

Random House, February 2019

Genre: Historical Fiction

It’s 1986, the heart of the Cold War, and Marie Mitchell is an intelligence officer with the FBI. She’s brilliant, but she’s also a young black woman working in an old boys’ club. Her career has stalled out, she’s overlooked for every high-profile squad, and her days are filled with monotonous paperwork. So when she’s given the opportunity to join a shadowy task force aimed at undermining Thomas Sankara, the charismatic revolutionary president of Burkina Faso whose Communist ideology has made him a target for American intervention, she says yes. Yes, even though she secretly admires the work Sankara is doing for his country. Yes, even though she is still grieving the mysterious death of her sister, whose example led Marie to this career path in the first place. Yes, even though a furious part of her suspects she’s being offered the job because of her appearance and not her talent.

In the year that follows, Marie will observe Sankara, seduce him, and ultimately have a hand in the coup that will bring him down. But doing so will change everything she believes about what it means to be a spy, a lover, a sister, and a good American.

Inspired by true events—Thomas Sankara is known as “Africa’s Che Guevara”—American Spy knits together a gripping spy thriller, a heartbreaking family drama, and a passionate romance. This is a face of the Cold War you’ve never seen before, and it introduces a powerful new literary voice.

9780812998955When you say “spy thriller,” you probably have a clear image in your head, right? Most spy movies place the dilemma at the center, with a suave/dashing/insert-swoony-adjective-here hero/heroine attempting to solve the problem while also blowing up as many things as possible. Ever since Ian Fleming’s James Bond hit the big screen in 1962, our collective imagination has decided that spies must be handsome/sexy (every Bond movie ever made), ridiculously skilled (Mission: Impossible), and probably escaping assassins (Jason Bourne). Historical spy novels are routinely set during the big 20th century conflicts – World War II, the Cold War – and they cover well-trod territory, featuring evil German assassins (The Eye of the Needle), convoluted conspiracies (anything by John le Carré), and, as always, white male protagonists.

Lauren Wilkinson’s American Spy is an entirely new kind of thriller. Not only does Wilkinson peel back the tropes to center a black female spy at the core of her narrative, but she explores American involvement in Africa, which was just as much a part of the Cold War as the more famous Iron Curtain region. Along with a gripping narrative, Wilkinson also muses on the personal costs of espionage and what it means to be black in America.

After World War II, with the power of imperialist countries like England, Germany, France, and Belgium waning, many African colonies seized independence. But the United States wasn’t content to sit by and watch. Terrified of the power vacuum left by retreating European countries (because God forbid any non-Western country be permitted to rule itself), the US poured buckets of money into these nascent African nations, as did China and the USSR. To no one’s surprise, brutal proxy wars broke out, particularly in central, eastern, and southern Africa, leaving the regions with a legacy of violent instability.

Into this conflict stepped Thomas Sankara, a Marxist revolutionary who in 1983 became president of Upper Volta, a former French colony, and renamed it Burkina Faso. Sankara was firmly anti-imperialist and focused on improving standards of living and promoting national self-sufficiency. Yet his Communist ideology and authoritarian style made him a target for US intervention, and it’s into this situation that Wilkinson’s heroine, frustrated FBI agent Marie Mitchell, is thrust.

Through a complicated series of covert meetings worthy of the best le Carré plots, Marie discovers that the CIA hopes to destabilize Sankara’s presidency by photographing him in a compromising situation. Her job? To seduce Sankara. Since her FBI job is going nowhere, Marie agrees, but as she grows closer to Sankara, she quickly discovers that the situation is a lot more complicated than she initially thought.

Over the course of her mission, Marie grows increasingly disenchanted with her bosses and contacts. They lie to her repeatedly, and each time she thinks she’s peeled back another layer of lies, she discovers yet another set of deceptions. As a result, she doesn’t trust anyone, in a nice mirror of the national Cold War paranoia.

But Marie doesn’t tell the whole truth, either. She keeps herself at a distance from nearly everyone, and she constantly feels as though she’s balancing between worlds. In a time where the police pushed back against civil rights leaders and the Black Power movement, why is she a Fed? Is she black first, or American first? In Burkina Faso, she finds her identities have shifted: she’s American first, standing out like a sore thumb, and while she looks like the Burkinabé, culturally she’s worlds apart. Even her beloved sister Helene idolized spies so much that as a child she practiced befriending enemies only to turn on them viciously when the time was right. It’s hard not to imagine that Marie’s been mimicking her sister in some way for her entire life, and in the end, you come to suspect the whole truth can only be found in the confessional journal she’s writing for her two sons.

I was lucky enough to receive an ARC of American Spy, and I’m so grateful I did. This is a spy novel unlike any other, one that makes space for the spies themselves to ruminate on the nature of their jobs and on what it means to be an American. I only had the haziest knowledge of Burkina Faso’s history, and it was an absolute pleasure to dive so deeply into such a well-realized historical moment. American Spy simultaneously manages to be an engaging thriller and a thought-provoking literary novel, perfect for readers who like their history mixed in with an exciting story.


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