By Simon Demetriou
In IS Berry’s debut spy thriller, her protagonist, 52 and at the tail-end of his career in espionage, finds himself reflecting more and more on his ability to ‘do the job’. The novel’s author, meanwhile, is at the opposite end of her literary career, but equally at a point where one might need to weigh up their ability to fulfil the job’s expectations. As far as being a thriller writer goes, Berry’s opening effort shows some promise, while also providing causes for doubt.
Shane Collins, after 25 years working for the CIA, is on his final tour in Manama, ‘a place where spies came to die’, working his single informant for details of revolutionary activity that Collins and most of his colleagues believe to be barely worthy of the name. Like every good insider-outsider, Collins looks upon those around him – the expat and espionage community in Bahrain – with a mixture of resentment and condescension. He is sleeping with a colleague’s wife for whom he has seemingly nothing but disdain, and revels in the fact that his superior, a rising star and the youngest station chief in CIA history, is likely to still be a virgin.
Things change for Collins when he meets Almaisa, a Bahraini mosaicist, and has what might tentatively be called a romance. As his disillusionment with his own side increases, so does his faith in his informant, Rashid, and he is ultimately forced to pick a side despite the official US position of keeping both the King and the revolutionaries in play. This decision changes the course of history.
One can see from the summary, that The Peacock and the Sparrow works quite hard to do the job. Berry knows the formula. The problem, though, is that the writing disappoints. I often complain of thriller writers struggling to write a good simile, but for Berry, it’s the metaphor that seems problematic (take this one: ‘The usual milky parfait of nationalities was in attendance: a thick layer of American, followed by British, topped with a sprinkling of French and German). There’s also the issue of the rough kid from the wrong side of the tracks – Collins – expressing himself in tones that shift jarringly from the prosaic to the ludicrously pseudo-literary (‘Hues too rich to label… reality mocks the feeble namesakes’).
If the first half of the novel had more going on, it would give the reader less time to dwell on the clunkiness of the writing. Unfortunately, by the time the pace picks up enough to push even an unconvinced reader along towards the novel’s pleasantly violent and disenchanting conclusion, the damage has already been done.