...a peculiar world, at once vague and precise ... Like most of Marías’s novels, Berta Isla revolves around ideas of what we know and do not want to know, of what we do not and cannot know, and the nuances and difficulties of communication. It makes many connections to his earlier works, especially Your Face Tomorrow. Like them, it takes place in a sort of epistemic haze. It is, if anything, more sinuous and satisfying than many of its precursors ... Berta Isla is often aware of its closeness to self-parody – the joking Oxford dons doubling up as spies, the slow, mannered prose and hurried sex, the seemingly endless musings and hesitations. But it is also full of humour and intelligence, and ranks as Marías’s best novel in years.
Marias takes a 19th-century approach to novel writing. He begins with the childhoods of Berta and Tomas and their first meeting at school in Madrid. He writes long, dense sentences that would please Henry James and require a similar level of concentration: though the payoff is a precision of nuance, the cost can be airless, claustrophobic prose. He is also given to sententious generalisation ...  s constructed from a handful of long conversations — between Berta and Tomas, Tomas and his Oxford tutor, Berta and other agents. These are thoughtful, intelligent examinations of the existential dilemma of the spy, but are unlikely as actual chats ... Under the pressure of all this cleverness, the novel feels abstracted, which is not helped by Tomas being so emotionally detached. This is perfect for a spy, but all the other characters are cold, too ... Berta Isla is a substantial, serious book about the human cost of being a secret agent, but it’s a peculiarly unsatisfactory novel.
This is not a novel about spycraft, the drama of going undercover, or even...the moral choices attending the profession of secret agent...Marías is above all interested in negative states: waiting, uncertainty, insignificance, ignorance, deception and self-deception ... Marías is...a remarkably long-winded writer who has made his prolixity a badge of honour. In the past, he has talked about using his writing to do a special kind of literary thinking, worrying at an idea over a succession of clauses to get at a kernel of truth or exactness. Yet on the page, this often comes across as fussy and distracting. The prose seems written more for its cadences than the images it evokes ... A man, or woman, who knew how to omit would release a much improved novella from this 544‑page tome. Interestingly, the slimmed-down book would be much closer to commercial than literary fiction ... perhaps the real master of deception is Marías himself, and his book is simply a potboiler in heavy disguise.
Marías recounts [Berta's] agitation in long, looping sentences that meander like passages of experimental jazz before circling back on the same motifs. As with experimental jazz the effect can be tedious. Berta faces a long, gruelling wait for her husband. Fans of pacier novels may share her feelings of desperation.
References to fiction and poetry recur in this elegant, discursive, persuasively vivid novel ... As always, plot is secondary to the scenario Marias explores. In this he is a philosopher, like his father, endlessly deliberating moral quandaries. He knows that the surface hides much of what really matters. This is an enthralling work, but not everything is as seamless or satisfying as in some of his other novels. When the structure of the book becomes clear, the narrative duet undermines its tension. And there is a downbeat tone, a detached air, that overwhelms any sense of propulsion. Just once is there high drama – superbly executed – when Berta’s baby is mortally threatened by Tomas’s enemies. The reverberations of that roll down the years, but for the most part the novel takes place in its characters’ heads. Marias is nevertheless clever in deploying a bloodless tone for a most disturbing subject. The result is powerful and indelible. What begins as a love story turns into tragedy of a peculiarly cruel nature. It is bearable, even enjoyable, only because he spares us all the details, and focusses on the essentials.
Marías has said that he feels more at ease with his masculine characters; there is a hint of the male gaze in his work, possibly misogyny? Not this time: Berta, the desolate wife, is the heart of the story ... Throughout there’s a sense of an authorial mind dwelling on events and consequences...The elegant translation, once again by Margaret Jull Costa, is alive to every nuance ... I missed the wit and audacity of the earlier novels; the pace is leisurely, and after a marvellously tense opening sequence as the jaws of a trap slowly close on Tomàs, there’s little sense of danger. And his revelation of the life he has been leading seems anticlimactic. But we return to Berta for the last word; a complex, emotionally torn character, she evolves and matures, and her intimate story carries the book.
Acclaimed author Marías has been described as a novelist posing as a philosopher—but one who surprises readers by providing a plot, after all. And so it is in this novel about a marriage imbued with secrecy ... What the future holds is revealed gradually in Marías’ signature prose, with large chunks of exposition that may initially be off-putting, but through which the narrative flows smoothly, engulfing the reader. Marías has been touted as a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature; this novel illustrates why.
... this constitutional elegance falls too thinly on his chosen subjects, and can leave the text feeling like a strangely refined smorgasbord—a caviar meatloaf, for instance, or a swordfish casserole. The brain is willing, in other words, but the plot is weak ... sees Marías running through a diluted pharmacopeia of his traditional themes, which are trimmed and repurposed for the exigencies of the central spy plot ... Though the prose never quite reaches the zodiacal purity of [Marías's] best writing, it’s this concern that ends up producing some of the book’s most poignant passages ... a book-length discursus that never materializes ... all in all, it’s a little superficial, with Marías’s limning of the Spanish 1960s coming across as hand-holdy, a touch over-glossed. Part of this is probably just a result of being an international writer, which can force anyone to over-explain the parochial. It does feel at times, though, that Marías’s internationalism has started to dilute his books ... in its long eventless drag, exhibits a painful patience of the worst sort—that is, the writer’s patience for himself.
In his latest novel, Berta Isla, Spanish writer Javier Marías delivers an intense, emotionally charged story based on what, at first sight, could be labeled as a story of love and espionage ... Berta Isla is a subtle reflection on the nature of fiction and the novel’s ability to serve as a tool to explore the many nuances of human nature. Marías’s intense, sentimentally charged narrative seems to underscore that only the art of the novel is capable of making visible facets of the human condition that seem invisible to the common eye ...
An ambitious work filled with mysterious and sublime moments, Berta Isla is a rich and complex novel and can be regarded as some of Javier Marías’s best storytelling to date.
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.
Marías...transforms a spy thriller into an eloquent depiction of those left behind at home in this rich novel ... The espionage premise is initially enticing, but the real draw is the depth of Marías’s characterization. This weighty novel rewards readers with the patience for its deliberate dissection of a marriage.