A man, who was a secret agent, parked his hired car in a rain-drenched square and took a bus into town.  That day he had turned forty-one, and as he dropped into the first seat he came across, he closed his eyes and fell into bleak contemplation of his birthday.

He’s a lucky man because when he lifts his eyes they fall on a vision of loveliness and he promptly falls in love.  The next move would be to speak to her – she’s only sitting on the seat in front of him, after all.  But as a secret agent he can’t afford to be so open and so he follows her, obtains her address and begins to write letters to her; letters which should probably sound alarm bells.  Nowadays we’d probably cry stalker but Thea is only 17 and, instead of taking fright, becomes intrigued and begins an epistolary exchange in which she gives away far more than she should.

The story runs until Thea’s 26th year.  Hers is a life complicated by her mysterious lover and she suffers – not only the loss of a fiancé but the pangs of her own unrequited love.

I do not doubt your love but I am not equal to a love like this. It is as if I am your widow.

It can’t end well.  Nor does it and the whole tragedy is completed by the end of part one though many questions remain unanswered.  Now for the clever bit.  In parts 2 and 3 key episodes are retold from the point of view of Thea’s two boyfriends.  Neither are omniscient but they add salient details which allow the reader to draw conclusions about what was really happening … only to revise those conclusions in part four, when the omnisicent narrator returns to tell the lifestory of the spy, Alexander Abramov.

At last the shady character emerges from the deliberate half-truths of the narrative. Like the character in the picture that hung on his bedroom wall, he’s a minotaur, a misfit, a half-man, deserving some but not complete sympathy. The other half of him is too monstrous to be ignored.

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