Genre: Mystery & Thriller
Length: 288 pages
Audiobook Length: 7 hours and 52 minutes
First Published: 2021
In an imagined modern resurgence of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, BBC news producer Tessa spots her sister on the security footage of an IRA robbery. Suddenly Tessa’s world shifts as she is confronted with the fact that her sister is in the IRA. Asked to act as an informant, Tessa must decide where her loyalties lie, what she is willing to do for family, and how to balance the needs of a sister with those of her newborn son.
Picked as Reese Witherspoon’s book club pick in April, Northern Spy has all the building blocks for a thrilling spy story. Instead, Berry opts for a slow character-driven novel that spends most of the time in Tessa’s anxiety-ridden thoughts, mostly about her baby. The author missed the chance to really make you think about how terrorism from one viewpoint looks like heroism from another.
Also, I was disappointed that there was no author’s note reminding American readers that the violence-ridden Northern Ireland she depicts doesn’t match with the actual political climate of Northern Ireland today.
A producer at the BBC and mother to a new baby, Tessa is at work in Belfast one day when the news of another raid comes on the air. The IRA may have gone underground in the two decades since the Good Friday Agreement, but they never really went away, and lately bomb threats, security checkpoints, and helicopters floating ominously over the city have become features of everyday life. As the news reporter requests the public’s help in locating those responsible for the robbery, security footage reveals Tessa’s sister, Marian, pulling a black ski mask over her face.
The police believe Marian has joined the IRA, but Tessa is convinced she must have been abducted or coerced; the sisters have always opposed the violence enacted in the name of uniting Ireland. And besides, Marian is vacationing on the north coast. Tessa just spoke to her yesterday.
When the truth about Marian comes to light, Tessa is faced with impossible choices that will test the limits of her ideals, the bonds of her family, her notions of right and wrong, and her identity as a sister and a mother. Walking an increasingly perilous road, she wants nothing more than to protect the one person she loves more fiercely than her sister: her infant son, Finn.
Riveting, atmospheric, and exquisitely written, Northern Spy is at once a heart-pounding story of the contemporary IRA and a moving portrait of sister- and motherhood, and of life in a deeply divided society.