Woman of State by Simon Berthon
This is a novel I picked up on a hunch a couple of years ago not being familiar with the author. The setting for Woman of State was right up my alley because it’s a thriller about Ireland, the Troubles and British politics which always intrigue me. I put it aside and it didn’t make the top of my tbr pile until now but if I’d known how enjoyable it would be, how good it is, I’ve have got to Woman of State much sooner. This for me is a perfect beach read, plenty of excitement and a bit of depth – exercise for the grey matter. There are a lot of good thrillers based in and around the Troubles and this one is good enough to hold its own; it’s original and stylish. Woman of State is loaded with intrigue, betrayal, and real world grittiness. The story, although it’s in familiar territory, is unpredictable and layered, complex but very easy to follow. A few chapters in it becomes unputdownable.
July ’91, Belfast girl Maire Anne McCartney has just blitzed her ‘A’ levels and will soon be heading south to Trinity College in Dublin. She makes love to her boyfriend Joseph Kennedy, and in the tender moment that follow he says:
‘The movement needs your help.’
Maire is committed politically but she’s not sure about the bloody struggle. There’s a Brit Special Branch officer, Haliburton, drinks at the Europa, eyes up the girls, before heading back to Castlereagh. Joseph wants Maire to be a honey trap. Bring him to a flat where the IRA can talk to him. Just that, an interrogation and then they’ll let him go, the worse for wear but alive. In her heart Maire can’t believe that but let’s Joseph talk her into it. The clincher is when he tells her that her big brother Martin OK’ed it, he’s a big shot in the IRA. The following Saturday she bumps into Haliburton at the Europa, he invites himself back to her place, the flat Joseph arranged. As she sneaks out four masked men descend on the randy cop. Maire walks home, next day the news is all about a Brit Special Branch officer lured to his death. A couple of days later Maire is arrested, the Brits know she was involved but she won’t give up Joseph. Eventually the Brits let her go, perhaps there’s not enough evidence, perhaps they want to follow her. Martin didn’t know but he doesn’t have time for her regrets and her naivety. He arranged for Maire to go to Dublin immediately, never to see Joseph again.
That was supposed to be the end of it but Joseph and Martin and the IRA come back into Maire life a couple of years later. Her English boyfriend raised their hackles.
What happened in Dublin? Twenty-five years later Anne-Marie Gallagher, respected lawyer is elected MP for the seat of Lambeth West, her acceptance speech draws attention:
‘No human right has been more trampled,’ she resumed, ‘than the right to live our lawful lives unobserved in the privacy of our homes, our meeting places with our friends, with our families.
Under the cloak of fear, of exaggerated threats from terrorists and other convenient enemies, technology – and the lost the control – has created the surveillance state.’
The new PM offers her a junior minister’s job. Of course, Anne-Marie is worried the past might catch up with her but the peace process is well established so maybe she’s safe. She’s not long in office before someone is stirring the pot. The police have received an anonymous tip off about a body buried near the border, apparently sometime in the early nineties.
The past about to come back on Anne-Marie with a vengeance. As the investigation into the body in Northern Ireland focusses on Anne-Marie she is forced to choose sides.
Avoiding the obvious road to travel this novel keeps the reader guessing to the end. It’s a plausible dirty, deadly setting, from Belfast to Dublin to Whitehall.
This is an accomplished debut novel from journalist and history writer Berthon. It was published in paperback as A Secret Worth Killing For. A second spy thriller by Berthon, A Time to Lie, is scheduled to be published in December this year.
HQ, an imprint of Harper Collins, hardback, 2017, ISBN 9780008214364