Friday, October 30, 2009

An Expensive Education

Book review of a novel by Nick McDonell, Atlantic Monthly Press, NY, 2009.

The action in this novel unrolls in East Africa and Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is kind of an odd amalgam, but the story moves on in a satisfactory fashion and keeps the reader engaged.

Misperception, trust and betrayal are the core issues investigated. The tale begins with an armed attack on a Somali village that the protagonist, a newly minted CIA officer, seems to have unwontedly instigated. Following is a series of intrigues as he and others try to unravel the mystery of the motives for the massacre and who did it. Other characters include a Harvard academic, a brilliant Somali student - who happens to have had relatives in the village Рhis society coed girl friend, a jaundiced CIA chief and a panoply of various hangers-on. Although some characters have substance to them, most are fairly shallow as befits the speedy pace of the story. I thought the hero was a bit too perfect. His basic flaw was naivet̩.

On the one hand the novel is a spy thriller, but on another it is a satirical portrayal of Harvard – its politics, student life, clubs and old boy networks. As such the book appeals to Harvard insiders, but these aspects of it leave the rest of us a bit perplexed. The East African scenario appealed to me and by and large I found descriptions accurate. Author McDonell noted in a forward that he distorted tribes and geography, which he indeed did; shrinking distances and using wrong names for people of this or that tribe. I doubt, however, that many readers will catch these discrepancies. In one instance, however, he relates an incident in Nairobi and later refers to it as having occurred in Khartoum. Maybe he was just trying to see if we were alert?

Don’t read this book for political insight into the complex politics of terrorism, Somalia or Kenya. Nor should you believe that it accurately reflects how the CIA operates. Yet with those disclaimers, it remains a good yarn.

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