‘HOW DO YOU KNOW WHO’S ON YOUR SIDE
IF YOU DON’T KNOW WHOSE SIDE YOU’RE ON?’
– The Most Difficult Thing
[ About the Book ]
On the surface, Anna Witherall personifies everything the aspirational magazine she works for represents. Married to her university boyfriend David, she has a beautiful home and gorgeous three-year-old twin daughters, Stella and Rose. But beneath the veneer of success and happiness, Anna is hiding a dark secret, one that threatens to unravel everything she has worked so hard to create.
As Anna finds herself drawn into the dark and highly controlled world of secret intelligence, she is forced to question her family’s safety, and her own. Only one thing is certain: in order to protect her children, she must leave them, forever.
And someone is watching. Someone she thought she could trust. Someone who is determined to make them all pay.
[ My Review ]
The Most Difficult Thing is the debut novel from Charlotte Philby and was published in July with The Borough Press. Described as ‘stylish and assured, The Most Difficult Thing is an irresistible combination of contemporary espionage and domestic suspense, and a compulsive, highly charged examination of betrayal.’
I do love a good spy thriller so I was really looking forward to getting stuck into this read. An added attraction, of course, was the fascinating true-life inspiration that encouraged Charlotte Philby to write her first book. Kim Philby, Britain’s most notorious double-agent, a man considered a traitor to his home and country and who defected to the USSR in 1963, was her grandfather.
Having worked as a journalist herself, Charlotte Philby had her own experiences of undercover work and, though exciting, she quickly grasped the dangers involved. Combining her knowledge of her grandfather, her years reporting and her experiences of motherhood, Charlotte Philby made the decision to create a fictional story based on a fictional character, Anna Witherall, a very complex individual who makes some very dangerous decisions.
Reading The Most Difficult Thing set me in mind of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the 1974 spy novel by John le Carré. Not that the stories compared, but that I needed to focus….a lot. The Most Difficult Thing is quite the sophisticated novel, a tale with many intricate layers set in a world that many of us can only imagine. Anna Witherall is a mother of two little girls. She has a successful job, a wealthy husband that she met in her college years yet something is amiss. Anna has a secret.
In her formative college years, Anna hung out with her best friend Meg and David, now her husband. After her student days came to an end, Anna attempted to create a career path for herself, along the way coming into contact with Harry, an investigative journalist, originally from Ireland. Anna was clearly smitten with Harry but, eventually, as the years passed, she married David, embracing the lifestyle that came with him and his family. David’s father, a very successful businessman, had a holiday home in Greece and it is here that Anna began to learn a little more about David’s past. She encounters Maria, an old childhood friend of David, who in time helps Anna out with their daughters on their return to the UK. David explicitly trusts Maria with their children, who in turn respond to her affection. Anna struggled with being a mother and Maria’s presence is initially just a temporary arrangement to help Anna with the daily challenges faced by any new mother.
But as the days pass, a coldness enters the pages. A complicated net of lies and deceit is woven around twists and turns that keep the reader on his/her toes at all times. The Most Difficult Thing is a guessing game from the opening prologue to that final page. No one is as they seem as every character seems to have an ulterior motive.
The Most Difficult Thing is definitely a more challenging read with an obscure narrative that takes the reader down many a rabbit-hole. I did enjoy the espionage angle, although I will admit confusion did reign at times. The unfolding of the domestic drama was well depicted, as the relationship between Anna and David got more complicated. Anna is not the most appealing of protagonists, but then neither are any of the characters in this rather slippery tale. Now I will have to mention the ending…ONE MORE PAGE…EVEN ONE MORE SENTENCE and I would have felt less disturbed, less shouting of WTF!!!!!!!
The Most Difficult Thing is a quite a read. It’s very different to the books that have crossed my path in recent times and for that alone I applaud Charlotte Philby. Writing a spy novel is no easy task, especially with the traditional masters of this genre lining bookshelves around the world.
The Most Difficult Thing is packed with tension and suspense, a thoroughly enjoyable debut. I most certainly look forward to more from Charlotte Philby.
[ Bio ]
Charlotte Philby worked for the Independent for eight years, as a columnist, editor and reporter, and was shortlisted for the Cudlipp Prize at the 2013 Press Awards for her investigative journalism.
Founder of the online platform Motherland.net, she regularly contributes to the Guardian and iNews, as well as the BBC World Service, Channel 4 and Woman’s Hour.
She has three children and lives in London. Charlotte is the granddaughter of Kim Philby, Britain’s most famous communist double-agent.