All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: Defectors by Joseph Kanon

on June 5, 2017

Joseph Kanon
Simon & Schuster UK
2017, 304p
Uncorrected proof courtesy Simon & Schuster AUS

Blurb {courtesy of the publisher/}:

Moscow, the Cold War, 1961. Stalin has been dead for eight years. With the launch of Sputnik, the Soviet Union’s international prestige is at an all-time high.

Former CIA agent Francis ‘Frank’ Weeks, the most notorious of the defectors to the Soviet Union, is about to publish his memoirs, and what he reveals is reportedly going to send shock waves through the West. Weeks’ defection in the early 1950s shook Washington to its core – his betrayal rippled through the State Department, prompting frantic searches for moles and forcing the resignation of Simon, Frank’s brother and best friend.

So when a Soviet agency approaches Simon, now a publisher in New York City, with a controversial proposition to publish his brother’s memoirs, he finds the offer irresistible since it will finally give him the chance to learn why his brother chose to betray his country. But what he discovers in Moscow is far more than he ever imagined …

Definitely could not pass up the opportunity to read this once I’d read the blurb. I don’t really read much set in Russia and definitely not post-WW2 era Russia.

In 1949, Frank Weeks, who worked for the newly-formed CIA defected to Russia and has been living behind the Iron Curtain ever since. It’s now 1961 and Frank has written his memoirs, which explains why he betrayed his country and what he saw in Communism that made him want to turn his back on everything that he knew. Frank’s younger brother Simon works (conveniently) in publishing, having resigned from his government job after Frank’s defection. Although Simon didn’t know anything about Frank’s spying until after he was exposed, the taint was already on him. Frank has asked Simon to come to Moscow and edit his manuscript, the first time that the brothers will have seen each other in over a decade.

As far as Simon is aware, Frank is mostly ‘retired’ these days and he doesn’t really expect the memoir to reveal too much. It’s KGB approved which means it’s probably already been heavily edited or sanitised but perhaps the opportunity to see his brother and get the answers he desires himself is too good an opportunity to pass up for Simon. He finds himself in Russia, escorted everywhere by a giant of a man. When Frank drops a bombshell on him, Simon is suddenly thrown into a dangerous situation, one that he and Frank might not be able to escape from.

I enjoyed this book for lots of reasons but one was the glimpse into Russia from an American point of view. It’s the height of the Cold War – 1961. Simon has been granted access to a place few Americans probably went and was able to see what life was like for people who had served the way Frank had. Simon hears stories of KGB-only hospitals and an American journalist he meets is happy to tell him stories of the regular population being unable to source vegetables in the winter and that the foreign journalists all take turns doing trips to Helsinki in order to acquire things that they can’t get in Russia.

I think Simon was perhaps always somewhat suspicious, even just a little, of Frank bringing him to Russia to edit his manuscript. It’s difficult to talk freely in Russia, due to bodyguards and the walls having ears, but eventually Frank and Simon find a private moment for Frank to confess something to him, something that he wants Simon’s help with. It seems a somewhat impossible task but the wheels are put in motion anyway.

This is a quiet book, in a way. The clues are subtle, the small giveaways that make up the twists not always immediately discernible. It’s intellectual espionage, a deadly dance of secret meetings and relaying plans. Simon ends up being far more clever than I originally gave him credit for – or maybe he just really knows his brother. I enjoyed him piecing together things and making his own plans as well. I also really liked the inclusion of Frank’s wife, who also has history with Simon. Years in Russia and tragedy has changed her and her role in this defection was not exactly what I expected either.

Everything built really nicely and because I’m me, I didn’t see the last major twist but I thought it was excellent. There were so many things in play at the end, people double crossing and triple crossing each other, Simon having his own agenda, Frank definitely having his. I had a feeling that it could really only end one way but it was probably the way that worked out to be the most true to the story being told.

I enjoyed all aspects of this book – Simon’s mixed feelings on arriving in Russia, his reunion with a brother that had been much loved, that he was still so confused about, the glimpses of Russia and what it was like to be there, including heading to a dacha for the weekend, the clever games of cat and mouse. I’ve never read any of Joseph Kanon’s books before, although I’ve heard of a couple of them. Definitely going to have to add them to my TBR pile now because I’d love to read more like this.


Book #96 of 2017


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