THE PLOT: American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson is about an FBI intelligence officer. Set in 80’s New York, Marie Mitchell is routinely underestimated and sidelined for being a black woman. However, these characteristics make her the perfect person to go undercover in Burkina Faso when the CIA want to undermine the revolutionary president – Thomas Sankara. This opportunity represents the chance to fulfil her career dreams, following in the footsteps of her older sister, Helene, who aspired to be a spy. But as Marie gets closer to her goal, she begins to doubt her chosen profession and the motives of the CIA agents who recruited her, as well as questioning the truth about her sister’s death.
RATING: Oooh, this is an interesting book! I’ve given it four and a half stars because it’s completely unique. It brings together a lot of different elements, with office politics in New York mirroring the global politics of the Cold War. Racism and colourism is weaved into the novel and explored in detail through the side plot of Marie’s mixed-race mother. And, there’s an ambiguous storyline about the untimely death of her older sister, which reflects on how money, race and gender inhibit women’s ambitions. Packed full of fast-paced-plot and complex themes, it’s an exciting whirlwind of a novel.
GOOD BITS: The novel is narrated by Marie in the form of a letter to her children. I like how this fills the book with an additional layer of emotion and danger because she constantly references how her actions led to their birth and are ultimately to protect them. This also means she is an unreliable narrator as she explicitly says she can’t remember some aspects of the story, or questions whether other people will remember details differently. This uncertainty is perfect for a spy novel because it adds depth to the mystery.
NOT GOOD BITS: I thought it took too long for Marie to arrive in Burkina Faso. She doesn’t reach the country until halfway through the book and doesn’t spend much time in the country. Therefore, I didn’t learn as much about the political background from an African perspective as I’d hoped. Despite chunks of exposition where Marie fills in some context about America’s unsavoury bids for influence in Africa during the Cold War, I wanted to read this first hand through Marie’s experiences and interactions with African characters.
Additionally, the limited time spent in Burkina Faso means the relationship with President Thomas Sankara develops too quickly. I felt their connection was too strong for a couple of meetings and escalated unrealistically. I would’ve liked her to spend a few months or years in Burkina Faso to slowly build her cover (for a spy, her constant hovering around the President felt very obvious) and develop the relationship while the political background escalated. In other words, I wanted an extra 100 pages set in Burkina Faso in the centre of the book!
OVERALL: You should read this book. A thriller with a black, female protagonist, it’s got a fast plot while exploring intersectional themes about racism and sexism. There’s lots to unpack, including how Marie stops being ‘black’ and starts being an ‘American’ in Burkina Faso, and would be a great pick for a buddy read/readalong/book club. There’s a cliffhanger and unresolved question so I’m waiting with baited breath for a sequel from author Lauren Wilkinson.