A young undercover spy is forced to improvise after her handler goes dark during the Argentinian coup in 1966.
In 1957, Vera Kelly is a suicidal teenage girl living in Chevy Chase, Maryland, struggling to come to terms with her sexuality; she’s sent to juvenile detention after multiple conflicts with her mother. Less than a decade later, she's a 25-year-old CIA agent skilled in electronics, embedded in Buenos Aires during the Cold War. Going undercover as a Canadian student, Kelly befriends a group of young scholars suspected of being KGB agents; she surveils their activities during the day and spends her nights transcribing conversations from inside the Argentinian vice president’s office, which is bugged. As the president’s tentative grasp on power weakens, Vera makes plans to leave the country as soon as the army takes control of the government. The borders close more quickly than expected, however, and she's forced to go into hiding and hope her cover hasn't been blown. In this novel, a coming-of-age story meets spy thriller, Knecht (Relief Map, 2016) deftly explores how Vera’s alienation from her mother and various romantic partners leads to her becoming a CIA recruit and how her self-confidence continues to be both challenged and reaffirmed in Argentina. Knecht’s crisp prose moves swiftly as Vera tails suspects and also accommodates moments of increasing self-awareness: “As Gerry had said, if things went bad, I could be killed. And yet, in the place where my fear should have been, there was a blank space. I felt that I had been living for a long time in a place beyond fear, where my life was contingent and didn’t amount to much anyway.” Throughout the novel, Vera wonders who she will be should she survive this assignment, but even in her deep uncertainty, it’s quite clear that she is already the character readers have been waiting for.
A riveting, satisfying novel.