Portrait of a Spy is about what you’d expect of a mass-market paperback spy novel. A new terrorist mastermind threatens the post-9/11 world and an elite force of spies must penetrate the evil network before it’s too late. Sigh.
The main character, Gabriel Allon, is a cross between a Dan Brown and a Robert Ludlum protagonist. Except, unlike Dan Brown’s hero, he’s not an art historian, he’s an artist. That’s right, an artist spy! No, seriously.
I actually think an artist spy could make for a unique and engaging character. Unfortunately, this book is missing a few pieces, and the most noticeably absent is character development. Gabriel Allon is a flat character, and throughout most of the book very little is invested in developing him any further. I get the impression that the author probably made more effort to establish his protagonist’s character in an earlier novel. Unfortunately, Portrait of a Spy is little more than Allon in action, and since the reader never really is able to connect with the character, there’s little reason to fear for his safety or otherwise care.
This is not to say Silva didn’t try. He tried a bookending technique to build on his character from an alternative perspective. Rather than introducing us from Gabriel’s perspective, Silva shows Gabriel through the eyes of a curious, if not obtrusively nosy bunch of townies that apparently are obsessed with figuring out why this stranger settled in their town. The best development comes at the end, when Gabriel is struggling through his grief. However, this is too little too late. A die hard Gabriel Allon fan will probably be satisfied as he gears up for the next installment in the series. But no one else will be.
Silva’s treatment of dialogue in this novel is rather poor as well. Exposition too often masquerades as dialogue. It’s extremely hard to believe some of these passages could ever be delivered in live conversation. Because the characters delivering the speech and the characters listening are supposed experts in the field, there’s too much information shoehorned into conversation. Exposition for the benefit of educating the reader feels out of place and gets in the way of the story.
“The laws and customs of Islam and Saudi Arabia are old and very important to our society. I’ve learned how to navigate the system in a way that allows me to conduct my business with a minimum of disruption.”
“What about your countrywomen?”
“What about them?”
“Most aren’t as lucky as you are. Women in Saudi Arabia are considered property, not people. Most spend their lives locked away indoors. They’re not permitted to drive an automobile. They’re not permitted to go out in public without a male escort and without first concealing themselves beneath an abaya and a veil. They’re not permitted to travel, even inside the country, without receiving permission from their fathers or older brothers. Honor killings are permissible if a woman brings shame upon her family or engages in un-Islamic behavior, and adultery is a crime punishable by stoning. In the birthplace of Islam, women cannot even enter a mosque except in Mecca and Medina, which is odd, since the Prophet Muhammed was something of a feminist…”
Then, the book suffers partly because of the subject matter. Frankly, 9/11 stories have become passé. Still, there is some entertainment to be found and the insight into the politics and culture in this terrorized world is interesting enough.
All negativity aside, I do enjoy the idea of Gabriel’s character. I like that he is an artist whose personal tragedy seemed to conscript him into a life of a killer and spy. And I applaud Silva for creating a Jewish spy. Having an Israeli perspective is a welcome change in this genre. However, as a spy thriller, the book fails. Only during the climax was I ever fully engrossed. The story and plot lines were slow in developing. Furthermore, even though it kept me reading, the climax itself is a terrible combination of trite and unbelievable. Not only does an ancillary character play a pivotal role in the climactic scene, their actions are completely unsupported in the text.
I recommend this book only if you’re looking for a distraction, a quick dip into a shallow pool.
Similar reads: The Firm, by John Grisham; Angels and Demons, by Dan Brown; The Bourne Identity, by Robert Ludlum
[A review was requested and a review copy provided.]