Silverview by John Le Carré – Review
By Alex Mair
Reviewing the final novel by John Le Carré is a sad process. The celebrated master of the spy novel died in December 2020, and his death means there is a large David Cornwall- (real name) shaped hole in English literature.
At least two Le Carré novels, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963) and A Perfect Spy (1984) are considered classics – not just classic spy thrillers, but classic books in their own right. Silverview, his 26th novel, and his first posthumous publication, is a slim thriller that plays lightly with the spy novel genre.
For me, travelling from John Le Carré skeptic to convert to devoted fan has been a twisty road. Growing up as a bookish teenager in North Yorkshire, John Le Carré’s world seemed at first dated and sterile. All those repressed public-school spies wandering around a Bakelite world where the Soviet Union was real and loyalty to crown and country a genuine impulse.
The secret worlds of his books seemed ethereal, out-of-touch – or worse: something your parents might read on holiday. My abiding memory of John Le Carré during this period is my mother buying a copy of Absolute Friends for my dad one birthday. After unwrapping his gift my mother said, ‘Since they are the only novels you read anyway…’. That was Le Carré to me then, the writer your dad reads. English Literature’s equivalent of a British Home Stores cardigan.
But today, I understand that there is as much sex, intrigue, danger, mystery and excitement in a good John Le Carré thriller as almost any book. Silverview, although not quite up to the high standards of his best work, is a deft and appropriate full stop to his remarkable body of work. The novel is slight, which is probably the cause of some of its shortcomings, but there’s still plenty to enjoy, particularly the Chinese-box way Le Carré unfolds the myriad complexities of two families whose fortunes are entwined together, much like, oddly enough, America and the USSR.
So how do I feel after finishing Silverview? Well, it’s not a ‘great’ Le Carré novel. If you’re not already a devotee you may be left wondering what all the fuss is about. If, like me, you love Le Carré, then you’ll enjoy this, but it doesn’t merit re-reading in the way his greatest novels do.
So perhaps start with The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and A Perfect Spy and make your way gradually to Silverview, enjoying the rest of John Le Carré’s vast and formidable body of work in the process.
‘Silverview’ by John Le Carré is published by Viking, £20 hardback