Red Sparrow: Spookily Good Spy Fiction for a Vicarious Double Life

“God, she’s serious, thought Nate. Typical Russian, afraid of putting a foot wrong. But he liked her reserve, her underlying sensuality, the way she looked at him with her blue eyes. He especially liked the way she pronounced his name, “Neyt.”
~ Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow

As today is #WorldBookDay, I thought it timely to share my thoughts on Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews.

There are plenty of suspenseful and harrowing scenes in this book, and from page one my heart lurched from my chest to my mouth where it remained for 547 pages. It was like John le Carré on steroids, it totally gripped me!

The writing itself wasn’t quite on par with le Carré, but still a very accomplished debut novel. I thought the characters and plot were totally plausible, and that’s probably because the author was involved in CIA operations for 33 years. The intelligence community may lie and steal for a living, but they put their lives on the line regularly; all so the balance of world power can be precariously preserved…

I deliberately haven’t seen the film yet, but I doubt it can match the book, which is brilliant. However, it was knowledge of the film that put the book on my radar.

I do think that Jennifer Lawrence is a good choice for the titular character, Dominika Egorova, aka Red Sparrow. She seems to embody her character’s essence from the book.

I found myself liking and sympathising with the beautiful, spirited and feisty Dominika. Her dream was ballet, (and I love that her mother is a professional violinist), but a cruel attack resulting in a broken foot ends her promising dance career with the Bolshoi, and she is left devastated and disillusioned when she is approached by her late father’s brother, Uncle Vanya. He has a small request to ask of her.

Not so dear Uncle Vanya is the deceptive and ambitious First Deputy Director of the SVR, who times his contact with his niece when she is most vulnerable. Needless to say, he does not love and respect Dominika like a normal uncle would.

Jason Matthews paints a picture of a modern Russia whose intelligence service (now the SVR instead of the KGB), which despite new names, appearances and PR, is very much rooted in the methods and attitudes of the ‘old times’.

Dominika has a ‘prodigious memory’, is physically stunning, strong, idealistic, cultured and determined – but she has a short fuse like her mother. With Uncle Vanya threatening her mother’s welfare she has no choice but to do his bidding and join the SVR.

After her traumatic job for her uncle Dominika is thrown among the wolves, but decides to run with the pack and beat them at their own game.

Her resentment at being a pawn for her boss is perfectly understandable; she is lied to, used and hindered in her progress, and her life is considered expendable in a revolting system that does not value its operatives beyond the glory they can bestow on their political masters and the State.

She is betrayed by her uncle when early in her training he sends her against her will to Sparrow School, where she and others are subjected to the vile methods of State sponsored seduction and ‘sexpionage’.  She survives humiliation after humiliation and uses her experiences to build her inner strength and fuel her anger against ‘them’.

Dominika is the first female agent to be recruited into the SVR, but her internal struggle to be seen as anything more than a ‘Sparrow’ is a challenge she must  overcome. She clashes with Soviet era forces within the Centre on her first case involving Simon Delon, a French embassy diplomat in Moscow whose daughter in the French military is the ultimate goal for passing classified information.

The only friend she has at Yasenevo (other than her self-serving uncle), is the kind and distinguished, but ageing General Korchnoi, who is head of the Americas Department.

The sections of brutal torture are not easy to read, but it is not just physical violence that is an ever present threat for the characters, but the psychological manipulation that drives their decisions and actions.

The most chilling, blood-run-cold encounters all include Sergey Matorin, Moscow’s most efficient grim reaper from the Centre’s F Line. He is the kind of ruthless, soulless assassin you would never hope to meet, a literal killing machine, who takes great pleasure from his work.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the Cold War hasn’t really ended after reading this novel.

It seems to have morphed into something even more complicated. Whether it’s done for dramatic purposes, or whether there is any basis in reality, only those sequestered in secret government buildings know the truth.

Red Sparrow is as smart, edgy, authentic, compelling and realistic as spy fiction gets. I was transported to a clandestine world of surveillance, subterfuge, street survival, (being ‘black’), mole hunts and forbidden love; quite a literary ride…

In the course of escalating emotions and events I discovered canary traps, barium meals, spy dust, whore school, burst transmissions, spy training, torture, murder and treason.

It also seems that spies can be foodies, and in Red Sparrow they do a lot of ‘business’ over dinner or in restaurants. The author (unusually for the genre), gives a recipe from the action at the end of each chapter. Whilst I’m not against this, I probably didn’t need to know everything they consumed in every chapter, so at times it came across as contrived, and had the effect of distracting me temporarily from the story.

KADDO BOWRANI—AFGHAN PUMPKIN
Deeply brown large chunks of peeled sugar pumpkin, cover liberally with sugar, and bake covered in medium oven until tender and caramelized. Serve over thick meat sauce of sautéed ground beef, diced onions, garlic, tomato sauce, and water. Garnish with sauce of drained yogurt, dill, and puréed garlic.
~ Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow

Locations include, Moscow, Washington, Helsinki, Rome and Athens. Matthews’s knowledge of these cities is impressive, as is the everyday life of the CIA Case Handler, Nathaniel (Nate) Nash. Wanting to take control of his own destiny rather than be sucked into the family business like his older brothers, Nate feels the need to prove himself in espionage rather than law.

As agent handlers go, Nate is enthusiastic and honourable, and his main concern is always to protect his agent’s life from constant danger. He is the kind of man you can trust if you are looking to spill state secrets…

After a near fatal brush with the FSB during a meeting with his Moscow agent (code name MARBLE), who happens to be the CIA’s most valuable asset, his stellar career falters. Gutsy, street savvy and fluent in Russian, Nate is now at odds with his chief of Station in Moscow. With his cover blown, he ends up in what he considers a bit of spy backwater, Helsinki.

However, his expectations change rapidly when he is tasked with making contact with Dominika. He ‘meets’ her in a public swimming pool, initially unaware that she has also been sent to ‘befriend’ him and discover the identity of his informant in Moscow.

Anatomy of a scene with film director Francis Lawrence:

From there the plot really twists and turns, and I don’t want to give too much away, other than to say that Nate cannot help falling for Dominika (code name DIVA), even though he strives to always be professional, but their passion risks the mission and their lives.

I thought it was original and a nice touch that Jason Matthews gifted Dominika’s character with Synesthesia, so when she hears music she also sees colours (Bach is red to her), and in her dealings with other operatives she can see the colours they emit, which helps her intuit their thoughts and intentions.

Quite a handy skill for a spy, to almost be able to read minds, to know when you are being lied to!

“I want to feel that sometimes we leave the operation behind, that there is just you and me.” Her bossom heaved in her brassiere. He stood up and put his arms around her. His mind was a riptide of damage control battling the stirring of his passion for her. He smelled her hair, and felt her body.
“Dominika,” he said, and the rushing in his ears started, the old danger signal.
“Will you break your rules again?” she asked. She saw his purple lust, it lit up the darkened room.
“I want you to violate your rules … with me… not your agent, me” said Dominika.”
~ Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow

Only three of the men in the novel (including her lover, Nate), have purple halos, deemed by Dominika to be ‘true’, the safest and most sincere, the ones she trusts the most, but even their actions cause her to question everything…

Some scenes in this novel are truly shocking and provoked a visceral reaction in me, others are thought provoking and pertinent to current affairs.

This spy thriller is not just a seat of your pants roller-coaster ride; it stimulates deeper, more meaningful questions about the nature of international politics and its impact on all of us. The human motivations are insightfully portrayed and sensitively stereotyped, as the characters move in a world which is not black and white but mostly grey, where the lines of right and wrong are blurred, even in the CIA.

“She was tired of being used like a pump handle by all of them, the vlasti, the inheritors of the former Soviet Union, General Korchnoi, the Americans, Nate, telling her what was expedient, indicating what had to be done. She needed something more from them all. She was weary of having her feelings denied to her.”
~ Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow

Red Sparrow encompasses first rate storytelling that evokes the life of a spook in startling detail. It left me breathless. It’s also the first novel in a trilogy, but I need to wait a while and let my nerves settle down before embarking on part two: Palace of Treason.

I’m leaving it there, because it would be criminal to spoil this superb book for you!

“It’s quite simple,” said MARBLE. “Dominika will discover I am the spy and turn me in.” ~ Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow

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