Author: Robert Harris
Finished on: 13 July 2017
Where did I get this book: A book club read
My daughter is 11 and, thank goodness, as much of a bookworm as I am. I have written before about how a love of reading is the best gift you can give your child (I know, I would say that).
Last winter I found a torch under her pillow.
“Have you been secret reading Elsie?”
“Do you do secret reading after go to sleep time at night, or before wake up time in the morning?”
Sheepish look. “Both.”
Now, obviously I can’t tell her off for this. That would make me the world’s biggest hypocrite. But she does need her sleep. She is like me and doesn’t function well without enough of it. So, with a heavy heart I removed the torch and banned secret reading (but if it wasn’t banned, it wouldn’t need to be secret I suppose – and I haven’t seen that torch for a while).
An Officer And A Spy reminded me of this episode because it is a real, old-fashioned page turner of a mystery. For several nights in a row I found myself staying up far too late to find out what happens. The mystery is not around whether Dreyfus, the French army officer convicted of selling secrets to the Germans, is guilty. We know he is not. The mystery is around who did what to frame him, who knew what, and how will the truth come to light.
Harris tells us the story of the Dreyfus affair, one of history’s most notorious miscarriages of justice, through the eyes of Georges Picquart, an officer on the periphery of the case when Dreyfus is accused and convicted, but who is subsequently put in charge of the ‘statistical section’, the intelligence division of the French army where the evidence against Dreyfus was cooked.
Picquart’s journey from total belief in the Jewish Dreyfus’s guilt, through the first seeds of doubt, and into the uncovering of wholesale corruption at the heart of his beloved army, is beautifully told. This book is so easy to read that it is almost a joy. Until you remember that it is all true. As someone with pitifully inadequate historical knowledge, almost all I know about antisemitism in Europe is the holocaust during the Second World War. Taking place fifty years earlier, this book sheds a terrifying light on the level of disregard for Jewish life. The acceptability to the officers of the French army of using a Jewish man as a scapegoat, even if it means imprisoning him in horrific conditions, acts as a frightening precursor to the genocide of the Jewish people across Europe half a century later.
Harris has a real gift for making you believe one hundred percent that the events he is retelling are all accurately depicted. His research is worn lightly, but its thoroughness is clear. I love a writer who makes you feel safe and secure; there will be no slip-ups here, and having read the book I now feel I was a fly on the wall in 1896 in Paris. And this is despite the fact that I spent the whole book thinking I was reading another work by the author of The Silence Of The Lambs, and wondering about his departure from serial killers and cannibals.
So, I was sleep deprived and I was grumpy. I had difficulty concentrating and I was yawning at inappropriate moments. All because I couldn’t put my book down and go to sleep at a sensible time. I am thirty-nine years old, and I’m not functioning well because of too much secret reading.
And the best thing of all is that when you’re thirty-nine nobody can take your torch away.