Portrait of the Spy as a Young Man by Edward Wilson #BookReview #BlogTour


1941: a teenage William Catesby leaves Cambridge to join the army and support the war effort. Parachuted into Occupied France as an SOE officer, he witnesses tragedies and remarkable feats of bravery during the French Resistance.

2014: now in his nineties, Catesby recounts his life to his granddaughter for the first time. Their interviews weave together the historical, the personal and the emotional, skipping across different decades and continents to reveal a complex and conflicted man.

Catesby’s incredible story recounts a life of spying and the trauma of war, but also lost love, yearning, and hope for the future.

It's such a pleasure to be opening the blog tour for Portrait of the Spy as a Young Man today. Many thanks to Edward Wilson, Arcadia Books and Sophie from Midas PR for inviting me and for my copy of the novel.

Portrait of the Spy as a Young Man is a prequel of sorts and as such will be enjoyed by long-time fans of Edward Wilson's William Catesby series and newcomers such as myself. Most of the novel sees Catesby in Occupied France as an SOE officer but we also briefly follow his training and there are chapters interspersed throughout featuring him as a nonagenarian, recounting his memories to his step-granddaughter.
The terrifically tense opening chapter immediately warns readers that although we know Catesby survives whatever he faces here and lives to a ripe age, the dangers he faces are no less nerve-wracking. Though he often seems to regret his choices, feeling his war wasn't as legitimate perhaps as his peers who fought and died on the front line, there can be little doubt as to the risks he faces. Before his first deployment to France he is handed his drugs allowance, most notably the notorious L pill containing a lethal dose of cyanide. Knowing that captured agents and resistance fighters will be horribly tortured means Catesby determines that should he ever be in that position, he will endeavour to take the suicide pill before turning traitor, however reluctantly.
Trust - or rather, mistrust, is a theme which runs throughout the book. With both sides running double and triple agents, Catesby is never entirely sure who he can rely on. Two figures become particularly important, however - his passionate, daring wireless operator, Marie and the enigmatic local Maquis leader, Georges Guingouin - Lo Grand. Both equally ruthless, their role in shaping who the young Catesby eventually becomes is made clear when he muses on his past with his granddaughter, Leanna.
The scenes set in 2014 smoothly summarize the outcome of wartime events but more poignantly allow the elderly Catesby to share his regrets, guilt and sense of injustice that so many Nazis and collaborators were able to escape justice, often aided by the CIA who feared Russian Communism more than German fascism. With the EU referendum looming, Catesby's anger and sense of betrayal at the possibility of a Leave vote is even more bittersweet with the benefit of hindsight. It's not all bleak however, and his touching exchanges with Leanna reveal a closeness which may be due in part to their complex relationships with their mothers but perhaps also because they both share a sense of not quite knowing where they fit in - he was the bright Suffolk boy who won a scholarship and learned to assimilate at Cambridge while she is of mixed race and dual heritage.
There are a number of real-life figures and actual events fictionalised in Portrait of the Spy as a Young Man which add a fascinating further historical aspect to the proceedings, and the sense of place and time is rendered with vivid authenticity throughout. Portrait of the Spy as a Young Man is a cracking thriller; suspenseful and exciting yet never allowing us to forget the very real human costs of wartime spying, both in terms of lives lost and the enduring emotional toll. An unmissable read.

Portrait of the Spy as a Young Man is published by Arcadia Books, purchasing links can be found here but please support independent bookstores whenever possible.

Don't miss the rest of the blog tour, details are below.

About the Author

Edward Wilson is a native of Baltimore. He studied International Relations on a US Army scholarship and later served as a Special Forces officer in Vietnam. He received the Army Commendation Medal with ‘V’ for his part in rescuing wounded Vietnamese soldiers from a minefield. His other decorations include the Bronze Star and the Combat Infantryman’s Badge. After leaving the Army, Wilson became an expatriate and gave up US nationality to become a British citizen. He has also lived and worked in Germany and France, and was a post-graduate student at Edinburgh University. He is the author of seven novels, A River in May, The Envoy, The Darkling Spy, The Midnight Swimmer, The Whitehall Mandarin, A Very British Ending and South Atlantic Requiem, all published by Arcadia Books. The author now lives in Suffolk where he taught English and Modern Languages for thirty years.