Berta Isla

Knopf. Aug. 2019. 496p. ISBN 9780525521365. $28.95; ebk. ISBN 9780525521372. F
OrangeReviewStarIn a tale set between 1969 and 1995 and moving between Madrid and Oxford/London, the polyglot half-Spanish, half-English Tom Nevinson marries his longtime schoolmate Berta Isla but is blackmailed into working for the British intelligence service, where his linguistic expertise is critically needed. Tom is typically absent from his Madrid home for long periods of time, but one day he inexplicably disappears entirely. Like the legendary Penelope, Berta awaits the return of her husband, whose whereabouts are unknown. Though the narrative has a spy-novel premise, very little espionage-inspired intrigue occurs, as we never ascertain the specifics of Tom's job. Here, Marías reverts to his earlier works: Oxford professor Peter Wheeler and the unctuous MI6 officer Bertram Tupra from the "Your Face Tomorrow" trilogy play major roles, and, as in The Infatuations, there's a female narrator, with Berta relating the events in five of the nine chapters. Likewise, the plot revolves around Marías's thematic hallmarks of deception and pretense and characters assuming different personas.
VERDICT With his typical serpentine, digressive phraseology; reflexive posing; and intertextual incorporation of English authors (T.S. Eliot, Charles Dickens, and, of course, William Shakespeare), Marías succeeds in creating his own fictional world, though an unexpected recognition scene is somewhat far-fetched. In all, he continues to validate his well-deserved global reputation. [See Prepub Alert, 22/18/19.]

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