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“You really don’t remember, do you?” Margaret asked, as he was leaving. She looked wistful. “I’ve always wondered if you don’t listen to begin with, or if you listen and then forget because whatever it is doesn’t interest you. I suppose it amounts to the same thing. You know your mind.” She said this without the chill Uncas might have expected. There was a kind of resigned wonder. As though she were used to it, but it still puzzled her after all these years.

I remember the first time I was invited to a faculty party. It was an odd experience. After four years of college on some level I still saw my professors as teachers. The near parental authority I had assigned to them they had no interest in though. They were looking at a class of undergraduates, most of whom went on to further study and seeing future peers, perhaps even rivals. It was a distinction that was entirely lost on me. I got my degree and then emigrated to Scotland looking for work. It was only in later years when I met some of those same professors at social functions that I realized the formal relationship I had imagined was just that – entirely imaginary.

Uncas Metcalf is the opposite of what I have described as a professor. An overly formal man who corrects everyone’s grammar before he can stop himself, even complete strangers, or mild acquaintances. Even his own children he views as curiously intransigent students, who have not taken his lessons to heart.

Of his three children he has a particularly troubled relationship with his daughter Fauna, who has moved back to the neighbourhood with her husband and family looking for work in the small college town of Sparta. Uncas has difficulty understanding what to him seem like wild mood swings and an unusual sense of humour. His wife Margaret and he enjoy quiet, inoffensive banter, conducting themselves through catchphrases and Jimmy Durante quotes that have grown old with them.

Then one day Uncas discovers his bicycle has been stolen. Putting it down to a local prank he tries to put the incident out of his mind, certain it will eventually reappear. Bewildered by the experience he wanders into a bagel shop and meets the daughter of a friend, Hanna. In his confusion he decides to buy a bag of bagels from his grandchildren. Then he receives a call that Margaret had an accident at a book sale and injured her leg.

The Metcalf family has to reorganise itself to provide proper care and attention to Margaret during her convalescence. She, however, insists that things should proceed as normal, even planning the annual family Christmas party. Uncas on a whim employs Hanna and her close friend Alex, whom he out of propriety insists on calling Alexandra, to care for his wife during the day. In Alex he finds a kindred soul of sorts. Both of them seem to regret a life not lived to the full, disappointed in romance and lacking confidence.

Then Uncas’s bicycle reappears in a children’s playground. Alex accompanies him to collect it, only to discover a threatening note attached. Someone from his past stole his bike to get his attention. Uncas becomes increasingly alarmed as he realizes he is being followed. His pursuer knows him very well. Uncas unfortunately knows no one having long ago retreated from the society of humans into his study of botany. His relationships with his family and colleagues are based on habit, ritual. Alex is the first person to actually cause him to speak his mind. He fears it is already too late after a lifetime of saying nothing.

The playfulness of Uncas and Margaret hides an emptiness in their marriage that unbeknownst to him, his children are aware of. Why else would Fauna place a more sinister spin on her mother’s nickname for him – “Lord Reticent Taciturn”. What is admirable about Osborne’s book is its quiet assurance, the slow building of tension within small town Sparta, the intrigues and jealousies of college society that appear so dry later in life.

The comical moral rectitude of Uncas, that spans from how one conducts their personal life to correct grammar disguises a life not lived, an embittered perspective on life masked with a genteel smile. Set in the 80s, Uncas for example has a really hard time with the slang word ‘sucked’.

Sad, bittersweet and tender, a very nice surprise. It was not what I was expecting.

What did I hear that Emma didn’t, when Larry did his material for her, sang his political arias, excited her, drew her out, shamed her and forgave her, drew her out a little more? I was listening to Larry the great seducer, I decided, replying to my own question. I was thinking that my prejudices were leading me astray, that Larry was far smarter than I had ever been at stealing hearts. And that for twenty years I had harboured a very one-sided delusion about who, in the great Cranmer-Pettifer stand-off, was running whom.

Once again this blog affords me an opportunity to read an author I have not yet tried. Le Carré’s novels occupy large swathes of shelf space in bookshops all around the English-speaking world. I once found myself cornered at a Christmas party by the father of a friend who swore to me that the British spy-lit author was one of the great masters of the English language.

Tim Cranmer is many things. He is a well-thought of figure within his small village community, as well as a politely tolerated vintner of very poor wine. He also claims to be a civil servant operating out of the British government’s Treasury Department. All of this, however, is a front. Cranmer has been working as a spy-master for British intelligence for years and the double-agent he trained, Larry Pettifer, has gone missing.

His former handlers are denying all knowledge of the affair and have made sure Tim knows they don’t want him spilling government secrets to anyone. Meanwhile the Metropolitan police have decided he is a person of interest in the case. So used to lying professionally Tim sets about trying to resolve the mystery himself. After all he has managed to keep something from both the police and the intelligence officers. His lover Emma has been involved in an affair with Larry. And maybe he knows exactly where his former student in espionage can be found.

Le Carré proves that the end of the Cold War was no barrier to his fiction. If anything the raising of the Iron Curtain allows the author to cast his eye over the plight of former Soviet nations such as Ingushetia. Cranmer’s easy complicity with the consequences of the vacuum left after years of aggression between East and West is contrasted with Larry’s effusive idealism and passion for the native Ingush. Where he offers security and a mansion home to Emma, Larry appeals to her sense of romance, both intimately and politically. For Cranmer romance means clearing his prospective lovers with London central and not taking a peek at their file.

This is not only a tautly plotted spy thriller; it also introduces a startling degree of psychological detail in its descriptions of Cranmer’s growing paranoia. His jealousy of Larry is twinned with a sense that maybe the younger man has a greater understanding of how the world works. Le Carré ruefully apologises for his descriptions of moribund academic life, the career chosen by Larry’s masters for his retirement from active spying.

Part Cold War-commentary, part dissection of one man’s descent into jealous obsession, this is a well-told spy-tale that does not shy away from political realities.

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