Cover of Berta Isla by Javier Marías - review by Charles Harris


Last month I reviewed the latest, possibly last, novel by one of the giants of spy fiction, Agent Running in the Field by John le Carré. Today a very different, indeed very unusual, spy novel.

Berta Isla is unusual for many reasons, not least that we English-speakers are so overloaded with books in our language that we often don’t bother to look outside the English language bubble.

Non-English speakers get the best of both worlds. They have their own books and they have our books in translation. By contrast, the percentage of foreign-language books that make it into English is dramatically lower. And the market for those is even smaller still.

So while it is quite possible that you’ve heard of Javier Marías, one of Spain’s most celebrated novelists, I have to admit that I hadn’t. More fool me.

Berta Isla

Berta Isla is his 17th book, and won the Spanish National Critics Award. He has been translated into 42 languages and Berta Isla, written in 2017, made it relatively rapidly into English a year later.

However, I find myself in difficulties when it comes to telling you the second unusual thing about the novel. Because to do so would, in my view, be a plot spoiler.

So suffice it to say that there is a major plot twist a little way in that I, for one, certainly didn’t anticipate. (It helps that I tend not to read blurbs, and if you want the full effect I suggest you don’t read the blurb of this book either).

However, the effect of that one moment will reverberate throughout the rest of the novel – and change every relationship in it.

Collateral damage

The third – and perhaps most striking – unusual element in Berta Isla is Marías’s focus on Berta herself. We meet her at the very start and indeed the very title tells us that the book is about her. And yet she is not the spy in the spy novel.

If anything she is collateral damage. It is rare – perhaps unique – to have a spy novel which concerns itself so deeply with the relationships outside of spying. The relationships that are damaged by spying.

The lives that are mangled on the sidelines.

Indeed, what it is really about is a relationship that is hardly a relationship at all. A relationship filled with absences and memories, hopes and uncertainties.

It is also about how much a person owns their own actions. If those actions are hidden from view, did they even exist?

Craftsmanship, clarity and truth

Marías creates strong tension, but is happy to take his time. At the heart of the story are the characters, especially Berta, and these are etched in careful detail.

He is interested in the minutiae of an unusual life – and also in the ideas that are generated. The writing is of high quality, but not in-your-face “literary”. The quality comes from patient craftsmanship, clarity and truth.

It’s as if the director of a James Bond action scene had panned sideways to show us all the other human beings whose lives are being blown apart – just out of shot.

Yes, it’s very intellectual – and very European. I may well have succeeded in putting you off the book, which would be a shame.

A story – but not as you expect it

Berta Isla is a well-constructed and constantly fascinating novel.

Marías gives us all the elements we want in a spy story: a plot, a strong heroine, villains, betrayal, death, danger, moral murkiness… Just not in the way we might expect him to.

And he builds towards an ending that is surprisingly satisfying – but again not in the way you’d expect it to be.

Read more

Berta Isla by Javier Marías

Review – John le Carré’s new novel Agent Running in the Field

Writing a gripping thriller