Anyone who visits my blog regularly will know that spies and secret agents populate my favourite thrillers, and there are plenty in Harriet Crawley’s splendid new novel The Translator. Crawley, fluent in Russian, lived and worked in Moscow for twenty years – but in the energy sector. Who knows if she knew anyone from Moscow station?
Clive Franklin is on sabbatical and enjoying a break in the Scottish Highlands. He’s fell running when he gets a call from the Prime Minster’s Office. He’s been seconded from the Foreign Office to accompany the PM on a trip to Moscow; their usual translator is unavailable and they’re sending a helicopter for him. Soon, he’s back down south, they’ve kitted him out with a new diplomatic passport, new suit etc, and a four week supply of insulin, for Clive is diabetic; everything has been catered for. George, the liaison, hands him some business cards and comments:
“I was told it had to be ‘translator’ and not ‘interpreter’, said George. “Any reason?”
“Yes,” Clive said, looking at George, at his Adam’s apple straining against the white shirt and cobalt-blue tie. “The accepted wisdom is that you’re either an interpreter who interprets speech, or a translator who translates text. But in Russia there’s only one word for this skill: perevodchik. Translator. […] I’m both. So ‘translator’ suits me best. Does that make sense?”
“Sort of,” said George, who was staring at Clive as if he were a rare species of butterfly.
It’s instantly clear to us that Clive, if not George, knows that the Russians will appreciate this distinction. Clive is a man of great experience and expertise, having translated for countless diplomats at G20 meetings and the UN etc. and having worked in Moscow before. I very much enjoyed the level of detail that Crawley brings to his role.
He’s briefed further on the plane, reminded that his phone will be bugged, the FSB will be watching, but to keep his ears and eyes open. He’ll be staying in the famous Metropol Hotel, (you may recall that’s the setting for Amor Towles wonderful novel A Gentleman in Moscow). Clive’s mind returns to Moscow, and he thinks about ‘her’.
‘She’ is Clive’s former lover, Marina Volina, who married his friend Alexei (who died from cancer). Unbeknownst to Clive, she is now the personal translator to Russian President Serov. When they meet each other over the table during talks the next day, both will be surprised, but able to not show an inkling.
Needless to say, Marina still loves Clive (and that is reciprocated). When Clive becomes privy to a potential attack on the undersea cables between the UK and the US, Marina may be able to gain intelligence on this operation, and defect to the UK.
The scene is now set for a race against time; the need to get more information via Marina, to pass it on via Clive, using the setting of training for the imminent Moscow Marathon as a device. Clive and Marina will rekindle their love too – as you’d hope!
Marina’s father was a close friend of the president, and she is a personal favourite of his, so there is an added claustrophobia from that. Also the president keeps her away from what is potentially happening, which is frustrating for Marina, but she will find ways to get what is needed to ensure that the Russian challenge is minimised and the British government will appreciate her betrayal of her country.
I really felt Marina’s position of jeopardy from the moment we met her. She will have to give up everything for what is right, to betray her country, to avenge her lost foster son’s death (sorry I’ve not mentioned him above), but above all for love. Clive is in a dangerous position as a mostly untrained go-between; although he’s being watched, naturally, as a diplomat he’s not in quite the same position as his lover.
Harriet Crawley has written a fabulous spy novel with a super central pairing. However, it was the supporting acts that I found so fascinating, from the Russian president who sees himself as a surrogate father, to the awful FSB chief General Varlamov (who reminded me of Beria) who hates Marina, and the President’s Aide Lev, her only friend in the Kremlin. Then on the British side we have Rose, who is ‘working’ for the British Council, befriender of Clive. I loved the mix of complicated spycraft with a simple underlying plot – which is hugely complex in details – if you can get them!
This was an excellent thriller, and would be great on the telly!
Source: Review copy – thank you. Bitter Lemon Press hardback, 414 pages.
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5 thoughts on “The Translator by Harriet Crawley – blogtour”
As I read your review I was thinking I’d really like to see this on TV!
This sounds great! I hope it will get published in the US.
Sounds like a thrilling story.
It was a good one. It would be great on the telly I thought.
Thanks for the blog tour support x