BERTA ISLA by Javier Marías


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Spanish novelist Marías (Between Eternities, 2017, etc.) revisits perennial themes—the mutability of truth, the untrustworthiness of the powerful, the vagaries of human behavior—in a brooding tale of lives darkened by separation and deception.

Berta is intrigued by “Tom or Tomás” from the moment they meet at school in Madrid. Completely bilingual, with a Spanish mother and English father, he’s good-looking and entertaining, brilliant at impersonations, and uninterested in the tortured introspection that absorbs most adolescents. These qualities attract the attention of the British Secret Service when he heads to Oxford in 1969, and Tom (as he thinks of himself in England) is pressured into joining after the police inform him that a woman with whom he’s been having a casual affair has been murdered. Berta doesn’t know this when they marry in 1974, but she’s enlightened a few years later, and for decades she reluctantly abides by Tomás’ insistence that she must never ask where he goes and what he does during his long absences. “Whatever happens will have nothing to do with me,” he insists, “because those of us who do this work both exist and don’t exist…the things we do are done by nobody.” This existential view of spying echoes throughout the novel in fragments from T.S. Eliot’s poem “Little Gidding,” with its images of a spirit wandering between two worlds, and in Tom’s musings that spies know what others try to forget: that each of us is “an outcast of the universe.” Nonetheless, he justifies his life in the shadows as “defence of the Realm,” a rote claim Berta rejects with contempt: “How can you say that your causes are just causes, if they’re given to you by intermediaries.” As usual, Marías propels his philosophical debates with the urgency of a thriller, including a bravura plot twist that completely unmoors Tom/Tomás. But Berta is more of a construct than a credible female character, and the novel has a slightly perfunctory air despite Marías’ customary brilliant prose.

Skilled and provocative, as always, but not one of the author’s best.

Pub Date: Aug. 7th, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-525-52136-5
Page count: 496pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 2019


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