Quite often, an author will write a series featuring the same character/s and occasionally over that set of books, the reader will find themselves attached to one or more of those characters. So when the reader gets to the final book featuring said character/s, there is a certain amount of apprehension that comes with picking up the book and beginning to read. It’s like saying goodbye to an old friend, and you hope they get the happy ending they deserve. If you’ve read the Harry Potter series you’ll know what I mean: that feeling of excitement in finally knowing how it’s all going to end, but then not wanting to read it because it will be final. So I fear that this post is not so much a review, but a goodbye, with perhaps a smattering of good words about the book.
As I opened the final novel in John le Carré’s George Smiley series, I found myself wondering if I was doing the right thing. I’d become so incredibly attached to this character and these books, what if the book didn’t live up to my expectations? Or what if it was so amazing I immediately regret reading it, knowing that I should have kept it to read on my deathbed – George Smiley, the tubby, bespectacled, master spy peering out at me from the pages as I leave this life and drift off to wherever it is we go when we’re not here anymore. But then what if I got hit by a bus tomorrow and never got to read it? Ok I didn’t think about it that deeply, but you should know that it was a very tough decision – and one I know I am not alone in having to make.
Having flown through the preceding novels in this series in the latter months of 2014, when I reached The Secret Pilgrim, I found I didn’t have the time to read. Or perhaps it was just a case of me putting off the inevitable. But I finally took the plunge and wrangled it out from the midst of my to be read pile and prepared to join Mr Smiley on his final mission. I was not disappointed, because it is good. Very good. So good in fact, that I found myself purposely trying to read slower, just to drag the experience out a little.
Smiley doesn’t have as prominent a role as he had in previous novels. Instead, the novel takes the form of a memoir of sorts, that of another old spy heading towards retirement, Ned. A disciple of Smiley when they were both much younger, Ned is now in the twilight of his own career, teaching the service’s new recruits. On a whim, he seeks out George Smiley – who is by this time retired – to give a talk to the latest batch of recruits. As Ned listens in on Smiley’s informal lecture, he reminisces on some of his own cases, nearly all of which had Smiley pulling the strings in the background, as he so often did. As Ned reflects on the past it allows the reader to do so as well; the narrative is full of nostalgia and an entirely fitting farewell to George Smiley along with some other wonderful characters, namely Toby Esterhase and Peter Guillam. The narrative itself was the most interesting aspect to me, as it is in the first person, the only one of the Smiley novels to be written in this way – the prior novels all being written in the third-person. I like to think le Carré has done this on purpose in order to add to the nostalgic feeling for the reader, as that really is the effect it has, and it made the novel that much more special. I don’t believe it could have been written in any other way, and I suspect that le Carré himself as he was writing, was perhaps saying goodbye to the old spy.
In closing I’ll leave you with words from Mr Smiley himself, words that say more about him than I ever could: