Gateway Gazette

From My Bookshelf Featuring Robert Harris and Jonas Jonasson

By Lynn Willoughby

An Officer and a Spy – Robert Harris

Thrilling historical fiction makes this novel about the Dreyfus affair a dark story of traitors, conspiracy and espionage.
Alfred Dreyfus is a young officer in the French army. In 1895 he is convicted of treason. In front of thousands of Parisians he undergoes “degradation”. He is stripped of his rank and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island. During this humiliation, a man standing nearby comments “Observe, Major Picquant: the Romans fed Christians to the lions, we feed them Jews.”

This novel is the story of Georges Picquant, recently promoted head of the counter-espionage agency the “proved” Dreyfus had passed secrets to the Germans. He too, believes Dreyfus is guilty, but as time passes he realizes there is still a spy in the French military. And when Picquant digs deeper, “…the most malignant deceit mounts and then spirals inexorably toward the uppermost levels of government.” There is enough conspiracy to go around and the cover up of top level officers with careers on the line, but Harris does not capture our imagination. Endless descriptions of meetings didn’t do much to keep the story moving.

There is lots of drama here, but occasionally the author gets bogged down in telling us about décor, dress, food, instead of the fireworks in this story.

When Picquant is packed off to purgatory in Tunisia, after his superiors discover him poking about, the story got a lot better. Picquant is not meant to count on a ticket home, but this consummate whistle blower had other ideas!
We know the outcome, but Harris draws a great conclusion in duty done and injustice rectified.

  • Fatherland
  • Archangel

……….and many others

The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden – Jonas Jonasson

In Jonasson’s new novel, we are treated to a lot of history, a lot of humour and one amazing girl. The theme of this book develops around the idea that one person’s actions can have far reaching actions, sometimes many years down the road.

I thought this book would be about Sweden, and some of it is, but the main character, Nombeko, was born in South Africa. How a lowly latrine cleaner becomes chief advisor to the engineer in charge of the development of nuclear missiles in the 1980s is the crux of the story. How the king of Sweden, the president of the People’s Republic of China, Mossad agents from Israel, an 80 year old potato farming woman, who may or may not be a countess, and an atom bomb become intertwined makes for interesting reading.

This is not great literature, but it is light and funny – believe it or not, considering the content. Racism and the dangers of absolute power can be trumped by charm and having a level head. If you enjoy satire mixed with history – this is your kind of book!

  • The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

Who Knew?
From the 1960s to the 1980s, South Africa pursued research into weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. Six nuclear weapons were actually assembled.

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