Retired spy Tomás Nevinson—once an agent for the British Secret Service, now living a quiet life in his hometown, Madrid—is approached by his former handler, Bertram Tupra, with an offer to bring him back in from the cold for one last assignment. The mission: to go undercover again, in a small Spanish town, to find out which of three women who moved there a decade ago is in fact a terrorist trained by the IRA, on the run after masterminding several deadly attacks.
Exhaustive and self-contradictory while suggesting some core of consistent purpose ... He’s...interested in the tropes of the genre, like a writer of westerns using the frontier as the setting for a morality tale ... A tension you can feel throughout Marías’s work: between the need to fictionalize the world so you can bear it, and the need to realize what’s going on so you can act.
Central to all Marías’s effects is his style. This is an interior novel, less about deeds than the guilty turmoil of thought, portrayed in long fluid sentences ...Seductively conversational and glinting with slantwise humour...as well as contradictory and grandiose, the torrent of reflection sweeps away the thought that even a closely printed novel of more than 600 pages might start taking care of itself when the writer gets into this kind of groove. And as the tale at last reaches its action-packed denouement, there’s something inescapably poignant about all these drawn-out deferrals, the never-ending clauses and caveats. Keep them coming, you think, knowing there’s no more left.
The narrative moves backward or spirals on the spot in a sequence of repetitions with variation, each return bringing us back to a slightly different present. This is a spy thriller, but it reads like one transposed into music by Philip Glass ... Readers may sometimes feel as impatient as Tupra does, longing for forward movement. But then Marías mesmerises us again and we are swept on by the long, powerful swells of his prose, flawlessly translated by Margaret Jull Costa, and the circling currents of his thought.