Northern Spy by Flynn Berry is a fast-paced story about two sisters and the IRA.
I pretty much always read the books that Reese Witherspoon picks for her monthly book club. Some are fantastic while others are a bit lacking. When I saw she selected Northern Spy by Flynn Berry, I was curious about it but wasn’t sure how into the story I would be. Sometimes when I see a book described as a thriller, I worry that it goes too much into ridiculous psychological territory.
But that’s not the case with Northern Spy. While the book is thrilling, it’s smart and complex. I had no idea where the story was going or how it would end, which is a really nice switch from being able to guess accurately on both aspects.
What’s the Story About
Northern Spy is focused on Ireland politics and the everlasting dispute between the British territory of Northern Ireland and the Catholic side that wants the area to become part of Ireland. I personally did not know much about this conflict prior to reading the novel so I highly recommend you check out this New York Times article, The Ghost of Northern Ireland’s Troubles Are Back. What’s Going On?, for both historical context and a look at what’s happening now in the area. I read this before starting the novel and it really helped to provide a framework for much of what is covered in the novel. Even though it’s fictional regarding the characters, it was clearly inspired by real events.
The story follows Tessa, a mother to a six-month-old and a producer at the BBC. She lives in Belfast and is accustomed to the nonstop conflict between the IRA and UK. It’s chilling to read that terrorist attacks are part of everyday life. But everything changes for Tessa when her sister Marian is caught on camera helping the IRA with a robbery.
Tessa is convinced that Marian was abducted. However, when the truth comes to light, Tessa is forced to get involved in the conflict in order to project her infant son, Finn.
We follow the story from Tessa’s perspective, which helps add to the tension as we don’t know exactly where Marian stands or how the story will unfold. I will say I thought the story was going to go in a typical direction where Tessa spends the entire novel trying to proclaim Marian’s innocence. Luckily, that’s not what happens and the end of Part One is really where the story takes off. I finished that part late at night and wanted to keep going but since I have a 10-week-old, sleep always wins out!
Through the narrative we learn that while Tessa doesn’t agree with the IRA’s violent acts, she comes from a family and town of sympathizers. And while she assumed that Marian felt the same way she did, she soon learns the opposite to be true. She’s forced to face the reality that her sister is a terrorist. The same sister who is so sweet to Finn and always there for her.
This first-person narrative is pretty successful in forcing the reader to wonder what decisions they would make if they were in their shoes. Including the everyday details of managing a six-month-old while working as a single mother, really helped cement the more realistic feel for the story.
Family comes first. But what about when a family member is committing criminal acts? That’s what Tessa must grapple with. However, there’s more than meets the eye with Marian’s decision to join the IRA and soon Tessa is swept up with trying to help stop the criminal acts on her own. She does this to protect her son but at the same time getting involved puts him more in harm’s way.
Family bonds, the complicated dynamics of sisters and a mother’s love for her son are all big themes of the novel.
I thought this is a very well done novel full of tension and intrigue. The single mother aspect brought an extra layer of emotion and worry. Tessa is an engaging protagonist and Marian is also quite interesting. If I hadn’t read Northern Spy, I would still be in dark with the conflicts of Northern Ireland so I always appreciate with a novel broadens my viewpoint of the world. This one is worth your time. For book clubs, check out my discussion questions here.