Silverview, the final completed novel by the master of spy fiction, John le Carré, arrives 10 months after his passing, like light from a dead star to illuminate nothing less than the slippery nature of truth and the very concept of loyalty. These are themes that run through le Carré’s tremendous body of work – 26 novels from 1961 to 2021, some of them among the greatest books of our time. In many ways Silverview is a fitting conclusion to the long career of a writer who redefined an entire genre with the deceptive ease of pure genius.
Wealthy Julian Lawndsley arrives in a small seaside town in East Anglia to set up a bookshop, despite having no experience and little concept of what owning a bookshop might involve. A faintly enigmatic visitor to the bookshop, Edward, possesses great confidence and a Polish accent along with old-world charm; he offers help and advice and even friendship, but what he seeks in return is a mystery. In the meantime, a young woman delivers a message to a top spy, Proctor. Her mother is dying and the message is urgent: there has been a leak, somewhere, somehow.
The characters are set on their paths, in their separate orbits, the only certainty being that there will be a catastrophic collision somewhere along the way.
Silverview is a book that looks death in the eye, that considers the value of a life, of love, and the true worth of dedication and faith
I approached Silverview warily. Publishing is ruthless about squeezing the last profit out of a bestseller; not every final utterance, even from a genius, is worthy of our attention. Some authors survive on technique and brio, the elderly maestro using charisma to make up for a lack of power and agility. I needn’t have worried. In this final work le Carré has lost none of what made him remarkable: here are characters operating at the very limits of their own endurance, confronting fundamental truths that have the disturbing quality of prophecy.
The novel is exquisitely poised in the present moment, set in a flat Fenland scarred with relics of past conflicts, facing a sea that threatens to sweep all away. Le Carré remembers, if the rest of us had forgotten, that the last European war of the 20th century was just as cruel as any of the others, and too recent to be over. The consequences are still playing out, even as the game changes. The sea mist that drifts over derelict buildings is the physical manifestation of the novelist’s preoccupation with moral grey areas.
In this concise, tightly focused novel, every reference has weight. WG Sebald’s masterpiece of narrative non-fiction The Rings of Saturn provides a connection between Edward and Julian and can be read as a companion piece to Silverview; it too focuses on obsolescence and history’s tendency to lead us “without fail down into the dark”. Silverview is a book that looks death in the eye, that considers the value of a life, of love, and the true worth of dedication and faith.
At one point a character reflects, “There are people we must never betray, whatever the cost. I do not belong in that category.” These characters are embarrassing reminders of mistakes, of misplaced certainties, and what matters when enemies become friends – or vice versa.
This may all sound bleak, but Silverview is filled with joy in the resilience of the human spirit, and with love. Le Carré’s compassion for his characters shines through, along with the gleam of humour. It’s also deeply thrilling, in the best way: old spies resurrecting their tradecraft, younger men discovering whether or not they can trust their instincts, a multiplicity of small betrayals and one or two grand sacrifices.
It’s not a perfect book (if such a thing exists) – some of the characterisation feels stereotypical, such as the flighty red-haired woman with a “rapid Irish brogue”, and pinning characters’ ages down can be tricky, but you can forgive that, and should. Those sketchy characterisations acquire depth with hints of untold stories, untold sacrifices. “We didn’t do much to alter the course of human history, did we?” says one spy to another, but this is the point: for some they changed everything.
When a favourite author dies, the loss is intensely personal. We mourn as if a part of ourselves has died, as it has. The nature of reading is collaborative. Without the partnership of the author, those thoughts no longer come, and the silence is profound. We had more from John le Carré than we had any right to expect: we can be grateful for what he left us.