Who is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht (Tin House Books, 2018)
I’m not sure a book could be more appealing in its buzzwords: Cold War lesbian spy novel.
Vera Kelly is a CIA tech undercover in Argentina trying to simultaneously gather information on the political leadership in the country, which is being threatened by a coup, and infiltrate a group of university students who the CIA believes are recruiting for the KGB. She poses as a Canadian student studying psychology living off her parents’ money, all while running around planting bugs, gathering intel, and reporting back to her handler. Which is going just peachy until the coup actually happens and her only ally in Argentina turns on her, leaving her on the run from the police and unable to leave the country. Sounds thrilling, right?
Actually, not so much. The plot was interesting enough, but this isn’t a James Bond movie. It wasn’t a thriller or your typical spy novel in any sense. I’ve never been a spy, but I imagine this is a lot more realistic to the life. A lot of waiting around for your boss to call. A lot of walking the streets, trying to keep a low profile while not going stir crazy. A lot of lying to people and feeling mildly guilty or at least conflicted about it. A lot of sitting around listening to important people talk about nothing of importance and transcribing it anyway. Vera as a narrator also tends to take the mystery out of everything because she’ll jump ahead and explain what was discovered afterwards that solved the mystery. So there’s no “ah ha!” moments or other lengthy explanations at the end. It’s all just sort of revealed as you go. But that’s not to say this book bored me — in fact, far from it.
As hinted by the title, this book is not just about her time in Argentina. Half the chapters are in Argentina, but half are told as flashbacks to the U.S., starting when Vera is a teenager living with her mother and accidentally takes too many sleeping pills. These flashbacks, many of which are only two or three pages, really drive the story, making it far more of a page turner than I expected. Together, the flashbacks tell her coming of age story, eventually culminating in her recruitment by the CIA. By coming of age, I don’t mean the story of how she learns she is a lesbian. That’s never a question. Coming of age here means her first love, tumultuous home life, short stint in prison, remaining schooling in boarding school, and attempts to make her way in New York City until her recruitment. She is full of the usual teenage angst and apathy. And the fact that she’s gay doesn’t make life easier, as this is the 1950s-60s in the U.S.
Vera’s spy work is neither fun nor glamorous, but her character is compelling. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book to someone looking for a thriller, but I would in a heartbeat hand to anyone looking for a fun literary novel. There’s much more emphasis on characters and their relationships than there is on the actual plot, despite being full of the usual spy themes like bugging, bombs, and coups. Vera’s life may be based in lies, but that doesn’t stop her relationships from being full of complex emotions, whether it’s her mother, her one night stand-turned-flatmate, the other students she suspects of being KGB, or her various friendships and relationships along the way. At its core, this is a novel less about who is Vera Kelly and more about how she became Vera Kelly. It is a novel of experimentation, discovery, creativity, and perseverance as a young woman makes her way in a world that has rarely smiled down on her.
Full of intrigue, subtlety, and emotion, Who is Vera Kelly? is definitely a fun yet memorable read. And, honestly, who can resist a Cold War lesbian spy novel?
[Photo courtesy of Tin House]