I slid straight into “Who Is Vera Kelly?”, carried along not by the pace of the plot, which is not the usual you-have-twenty-four-hours- to-save-the-world spy thriller pace but by the nuanced but unpretentious prose and by the clear, calm way in which Vera describes herself and her situation.
We meet two Veras in the book – the 1957 not-quite-eighteen Vera, in emotional distress and heading towards juvie and 1966 twenty-six going on twenty-seven Vera who works for the CIA undercover in Argentina collecting covert surveillance material on politicians and dissidents.
I liked the fact that neither Vera discusses the other. Both are fully occupied by their present. There is no clumsy forboding or regretful reminiscence, just life as it happens.
What links the two Veras is a deep awareness of their isolation and their inability to live an authentic life without running the risk of being punished for their sexual orientation.
I enjoyed anticipating the slow reveal that would let me see how the 1957 Vera, in love with her best friend, in conflict with her mother and locked away by the authorities became 1966 Vera, working for a CIA that has a policy of not knowingly employing gay people because of the risk of blackmail.
Vera’s narrative about her teenage life has the stunned quiet of shock and dislocation about it that comes from being a teenager dealing with emotions that are larger than you are, when you have no experience to guide you and no power to protect yourself.
One of my favourite passages in the book is seventeen-year-old Vera’s description of how she feels about Joanne, the girl she loves, in which she recognises her own inability to look at herself and her emotions directly or set them in context but in which she is able to express their power:
“When I thought of Joanne I could do never do better than a kind of wounded evasion of my romantic feelings for her.
I pretended that I was like one of the great ladies of the nineteenth century who sent each other genteel letters when they were apart about how desperately they missed each other. When we read those letters in history classes, or came across that kind of talk in books, our teachers would explain that what read like passion was just the natural affinity of women for each other andthere was nothing out of the way about it at all.
Joanne had been my favourite person in the world and when she hugged me and her face pressed against my neck I felt a fizzing, nauseous thrill from the pit of my stomach to the bones of my feet. That was all I knew about it and all I could have told anyone if anyone had asked.”
Vera’s narrative about her time undercover in Buenos Aires is tense in a way that speaks to fear long lived with rather than an adrenalin rush. She habitually and skillfully hides who she is. She is alone, reaching for detachment and finding first panic and then determination and courage. The tension is handled in a low-key way that builds pressure at an inexorable pace that feels like a slow-motion car-crash in which Vera is in the passenger seat.
One of the things I found most engaging about Vera is how clearly she expresses what she sees. Her interior dialogue is nuanced and rich. Here’s an example of her reaction to something as she walks through the pre-dawn streets of Buenos Aires as a coupe d’êtat takes place:
“I passed a nightclub with the doors propped open, young people streaming out into the street. I was startled by the intrusion of raucous nightime into this quiet dawn moment.”
As things got worse in Buenos Aires I kept asking myself why Vera had chosen to put herself at risk by going under-cover in a foreign land. I could see no driving idealism or fervent patriotism or even thrill-seeking to explain the choice. As the story unfolded and I started to get an answer to the question, “Who Is Vera Kelly?” I began to understand that Vera’s situation in Buenos Aires is only an amplification of her life in the US. Vera has been living under-cover her whole life. It seemed to me that her situation also gave Vera a legitimate reason for watching and manipulating people while remaining distant and hiding who she is.
This feeling was reinforced when Vera finally talks about her relationship with her first-love, Joanne. She Says:
“Joanne was the last person who could look at me and see me looking back. Who could put out her hand and find me there. I wouldn’t let it be so easy again.”
“Who Is Vera Kelly?” is an accessible, easy-to-read book but that doesn’t mean it’s a simple one. Part of my pleasure in reading the book came from the way in which the novel uses the spy genre to demonstrate what it’s like to live in an environment so hostile to your sexual orientation that you dare not admit to being who you are and the consequential stress, isolation and blurring of identity.
I listened to the audiobook edition, which is narrated with great skill by Elisabeth Rodgers, You can hear a sample of her narration of “Who Is Vera Kelly?” by clicking on the SoundCloud link below.