The Expats by Chris Pavone

The spy who returned to the cold

SARAH LAURENCE reviews The Expats, a masterful debut spy novel by Chris Pavone

BY SARAH LAURENCE

One might initially be lulled into thinking that Pavone’s The Expats is the prodigy of a Le Carré political thriller and Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. Kate Moore is much like any other working wife and mother in Washington, except that no one in her family knows that her job in “the Company” is to kill people, usually in Latin America. And sometimes, no matter how good you are, when targets become too close to the bone, operations just don’t go according to plan.

So when her husband Dexter is offered an IT contract with a private bank in Luxembourg (where, even though the name brings back shady memories, she pretends never to have visited) Moore has the chance to extricate herself from the system. Despite qualms about giving up the professional role that – privately – defines so much of her, the move comes not without liberation. “In that first flash of recognition, deep relief had washed over her, the relief of an unexpected solution to an intractable problem. She would have to quit”.

She looks forward to having the time to spend on leisurely activities – playing Lego with her sons, learning tennis from a handsome pro, drinking coffee with fellow mothers in the European sunshine and planning exotic family skiing trips and date weekends in Paris.

When the reality of her new life is (surprise, surprise) not entirely the rosy cobblestone scenes of family bliss she’s imagined and the alarm bells of suspicion begin to ring through the woolly mind-numbing boredom she feels, it is almost easy to convince herself, and us, that these misgivings are merely the products of an over-active, expertly-trained mind accustomed to adrenaline and hypersensitive to risk. There is an overtly friendly American couple who have a conveniently situated apartment and yet don’t seem quite plausible. Moore’s questions about her husband’s job are met with a vague insouciance practically begging to be investigated amid insecurity heightened by his growing indifference. Moore’s new position as housewife and child-carer-in-chief nudges her neatly onto a path so defined it might have been paved for her with yellow bricks.

The lack of a factual political hook used as a framework by many spy novels means that The Expats instead becomes intensely personal, focusing not only on increasingly fascinating levels of deception but the range of emotions that come with giving up a job to work in the home and expat life in Luxembourg. The abrupt flashes back and forward in time require full attentiveness and create the addictive quality of the impossible-to-predict (but can’t help trying anyway) whodunit. While the description and detailed language of the novel are superior, the unfolding plot is what really makes this read worthwhile.

While Kate is a well-trained, highly-skilled operative, she is created with enough flaws for her to be believable and with the familiar dark-hole, blind spot that is the unconditional love for her children – leading one to wonder about and perhaps sympathise with genuine spies and diplomats who also fulfil roles of wives and mothers.

This startlingly competent debut novel from a veteran book editor is faultlessly told from a female perspective and makes easy work of hours spent next to the pool or in front of a fire. If it does indeed bring to mind certain preceding books, then (much like pals Stella McCartney and Gwyneth Paltrow) it is indeed a love child with distinct and emerging talents of its own.

The Expats is published by Faber and Faber and is available from Kalahari.com.

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