Title: Portrait of the Spy as a Young Man (Catesby #7)
Author: Edward Wilson
Publisher: Arcadia Books
Date of publication: September 2020
Genre: Historical fiction
Number of pages: 350
Format reviewed: Hardback
Source: Publisher / Midas
In 1941, a teenage William Catesby is offered a place at the University of Cambridge, but decides to turn it down in favour of joining the army and supporting the war effort.
In 2014, now in his nineties, Catesby recounts his story to his granddaughter for the first time. Their interviews weave together the historical, the personal and the emotional, skipping between different decades and continents as they reveal a complex and conflicted man.
Catesby’s life is not just about spying and the trauma of war, but of lost love, yearning and hope for the future.
Historical fiction is a genre that has always frightened me. I often feel like I wouldn’t truly get the book as my knowledge of history is not so good, but I am also guilty of thinking the past is sometimes too awful to be revisited. This is a mistake. Now, I know.
I don’t read books that have any link to the Second World War. The reason is simple; my great-grandmother told me stories that are so authentic I thought nothing could ever come close to making me feel what it was like as much as her words. I was partly right, but…Yes, there is a but. When I was offered the chance to read and review Portrait of the Spy as a Young Man, I decided it was time to give it a try and see if I was able to bear the jump back in time and immerse myself in occupied France. Maybe I was missing my great-granny that day.
Do I regret my decision? No.
Portrait of the Spy as a Young Man is not a simple historical novel. It packs adventure, romance, tension, and real life events and people in a gripping package wrapped with what life is about. The main character, Catesby, was new to me, and meeting him at an old age recounting his personal story to his granddaughter caught me by surprise. Immediately, I was brought to my own story, and what I’d learned of a war that had devastated my country, France, for years, and left so many scars on so many people and other nations too.
The emotional bond was there. The sophisticated writing did the rest. I enjoyed following Catesby at university, then following his training and later, his years on the front. This book is not filled with dust and stories you can’t relate to. The opening is so taut and intense you can’t help but hold your breath. Even if soon after you understand Catesby lives long enough to be able to share part of his life story with his granddaughter, the author does a great job at igniting the tension from the start and it never lets up. The action might be in the past, but they feel as real as the minute ticking when you read it. There is a certain power to the writing that keeps you fascinated by the tale of a young Catesby fighting for freedom, and so much more. Contrary to so many history books, the events are right in front of you. But not just them. The feelings are too. The fear, the excitement, the distrust, the danger. Politics are involved, where to turn, who to talk to? I really felt I was back to that time trying to figure out what to do.
One thing I particularly liked was how Catesby was eager to enroll in the army, and then was recruited for his personality and abilities for a very special kind of army fight. The army didn’t shape him as much as he as a person shaped his path in the army. Do I make sense? Well, I do to me! Catesby is a spectacular and human character that I enjoyed sharing my time with.
Portrait of the Spy as a Young Man was a great discovery. I now know great authors like Edward Wilson can take you to the heart of a particularly difficult part of our history and inject humanity into it to make it real, three dimensional, and so easy lose yourself in. You don’t get facts, you get life.
You can get your copy here.
My thanks to Sophie for inviting me to be part of this book tour.