Review: The English Girl by Daniel Silva

This book has nothing to do with travel, weight loss, or New York City. Why is it here? Because, this series was the tipping point in finally getting me to go to Israel. I wanted to see the places that Silva described so vividly. Shamron’s Tiberias. Gabriel’s place on Narkiss Street. … As an aside, why do some characters feel right as a last name but not as a first and vice versa?

This was the 28th book I’ve finished in 2013, and like the rest of the Allon series, one I could easily have read in one sitting if I’d had enough time. This blog took a lot longer to write and post than the book did to read. Odd. English Girl was also the first book I read on iBooks and I really like that as a reading experience. It and the Kindle app beat the Nook app, hands down. I did not want to leave the world of Gabriel Allon, but then again I never do. Is it July 2014 yet?

“In the Op Center at King Saul Boulevard, however, he was but a single red light, an angel of vengeance alone in the city of heretics.”

The English Girl is the most recent title in Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon series.  There are spoilers here, so read on at your own risk

For some reason, I kept referring to this as The English Patient. I have no idea why, since I haven’t even thought about that movie in a long time and I’m not even sure I’ve ever seen it. Bizarre.

Unlike some of the victims that Gabriel is saving, I never felt a connection to Madeline Hart and didn’t feel much sympathy for Jonathan Lancaster. Probably has to do with the current political environment. I’m tired of misbehaving politicians. I did like the twist when it came to Madeline. Not the faked death, but her true identity. Twists like that are part of what keep Silva’s stories different and engaging.

Coffeemakers, blenders, toasters: these were a mystery to him. Gilah, his long-suffering wife, often joked that the great Ari Shamron, if left to his own devices, would find a way to starve in a kitchen filled with food.

I love this portrayal of Shamron and it’s part of why Shamron is such a great, three-dimensional character. You feel for him and you know him — not just his strengths as the semi-former leader of Mossad, but as a human being. Speaking of the leader, it’s going to be interesting when / if Gabriel does follow through on the agreement to finally become the Director.

Once, Gabriel might have chafed under the pressure of Shamron’s constant presence, but no more. The great Ari Shamron was eternal, but the vessel in which his spirit resided would not last forever.

And then, there are things about Shamron I never want to think about. I was glad he survived to see another book. “That evening was Shabbat. Shamron invited them to dinner at his home in Tiberias. It was not truly an invitation, for invitations can be politely declined. It was a commandment, chiseled into stone, inviolable.” That in so many ways is Shamron himself. Like Gilah said, two weeks is a long time. I believe his worry about Gabriel’s safety is part of what ages Shamron, but at the same time he’s a driver of putting him into those situations.  I wonder if urging him to take the Director’s position is his way of keeping him safe? Allon will never truly be out of harm’s way I don’t believe.

An interesting piece to The English Girl was the background to Graham Seymour and how he was same same, but different when compared with his father. One of Allon’s closest friends, and described as such in one of the many lines in The English Girl that made me LOL: “They had fought for one another, bled for one another, and in some cases killed for one another. They were as close as two spies from opposing services could be, which meant they distrusted each other only a little. ” I don’t recall that this was previously explored, and that’s a nice break from Silva’s re-explaining each of the central characters. Speaking of which, I don’t have copies of RembrandAffair and other recent titles with me — but I’m pretty sure he copies and pastes the descriptions from one book to the next. That’s one way to show consistency.

I like how Silva tied the previous books back to this — both in his conversation with Graham Seymour about taking the job, but also in the new exhibit which Chiara oversaw. It not only showed how much the state of Israel valued Allon’s work — but also Chiara’s status as a professional outside her work for the Office and being Mrs. Gabriel Allon. As it was my love of Israeli history that first drew me to Silva, I loved how much time was spent on Solomon’s Temple in this book as well as The Fallen Angel. It’s tying in history that makes Silva’s titles stand apart from other crime/mystery titles.

She looked astonishingly beautiful, thought Gabriel, and far too young to be the wife of a battered wreck like him. Her eyes, wide and oriental in shape, were the color of caramel and flecked with gold, a combination that Gabriel had never been able to accurately reproduce on canvas. It had been many months since Chiara had agreed to sit for him; the exhibit had left her with little time for anything else.

I actually wonder what drives Silva to Chiara. She is, by far, the most well-described of any character including Allon. I leave wondering how old she is, however. In The English Girl press, Silva finally puts Allon’s age as in his 60s. I’d put Chiara at 40ish? I like that Allon is clearly still so in love with her. The details he notices comes from his line of work, but also his utter and total fascination with her: “Her hair was arranged into a careless bun with many stray tendrils, and she was wearing the stylish new glasses she required for reading. Chiara was self-conscious about the glasses, but Gabriel took secret pleasure in the slight weakening of her vision. It gave him hope that perhaps one day she might look less like his daughter and more like his wife.

With the film rumors still floating around, I still see Melina Kanakaredes as Chiara, but Allon is harder. Stephen Collins has always been my Allon, but even he isn’t quite right. I like how Chiara’s simple presence can soothe Gabriel, such as when she showed up in London when he was near Keller’s parents’ place.  Her knowing when to be there is part Office, but part  knowing him, knows how he works. She can be there as their “cook” but in reality, she’s much, much more to the team. She is their glue and his heart.

Part of what also makes Chiara a wonderfully three-dimensional character like Shamron is that Silva acknowledges that her history is still her present. She and Gabriel still live well under the shadow of her abduction by Kharkov. Although the book’s ending seemed to put some resolution to it, I have a feeling that the lack of children will remain a  “thing” for Gabriel. It’s his guilt over his son, but also his desire to give Chiara a child before he is too old? I like how each of these books can be a standalone because Silva gives the reader enough background — but in doing so he also reminds those of us who have read the whole series that this is a long term series. He has, of the fiction writers I’ve read, the best character “Bible” and does a good job of tying up loose ends and carrying them forward into future titles. That was the same when Gabriel went willingly to the old woman in Corsica while waiting for Keller’s return. It all tied back to the “City of Heretics” in the East. I actually didn’t see that coming, although I probably should have.

Silva could easily have put the storyline of Leah and Daniel to bed when Leah gave Gabriel her blessing to marry Chiara, but he didn’t. I like that he went the Garden of Gethsemane. It wasn’t just that it was 27 September, but also knowing there was a chance he might not return safely to Israel, so he needs to visit Daniel’s grave. This is, however, the first title where I don’t recall Allon visiting Leah and I found that surprising. I loved how the memories of the car bomb were a recurrent haunt for Gabriel in this series. Dreams of running toward a car that receded farther into the distance with each stride. Dreams of fire and blood. In his subconscious, Madeline and Leah became indistinguishable, two women, one whom he had loved, another whom he had sworn to protect, both consumed by fire. He was despondent with grief. More than anything, though, he was gripped by an overwhelming sense of failure. He had given Madeline his word he would get her out alive. Instead, she had died a nightmarish death, bound and gagged in a coffin of fire. It is a part of what drives him, even more than his original assignment with Shamron.

The focus on Corsica was interesting to me. I don’t know much about the island and I’m sure much of this was fictionalized, but it was still a really good insight into some of the family history, including the incitements of blood feuds by seemingly blinking. And of course the all-seeing macchia. I don’t actually recall the storyline where Don Orsati was meant to kill Allon, or the gift of the talisman, but I like how it served as a natural introduction.

Don Orsati, Keller, the old woman and, of course, the Goat were fabulous characters. Silva really channeled Lord of the Flies with that one. In a good way:

“What did you say to it?” asked Gabriel when they were driving again. “I told him you were sorry for being mean to him.” “But I’m not sorry. He was definitely the aggressor.” “He’s a goat, darling.” “He’s a terrorist.” “How can you possibly run the Office if you can’t get along with a goat?”

I don’t really know all that much about the belief in the evil eye, but I believe Silva wrote it well. In some ways, Keller was like Seymour. By design he should be Allon’s enemy — especially since Keller had been hired to kill Gabriel — but they work together because both of their jobs are better-done that way. I also liked how the story came back to don Orsati and Corsica in the end. It needed to come full circle to be complete.

My only quibble with the writing? Silva needs to find a synonym for ancient. Everything was ancient. People, places, many places. Come on, so many better words that could have been used and it began to grate quickly.

Gabriel quickly removed the battery, exposing the serial number on the inside of the device, and used his personal BlackBerry to snap a photo of it.

Spies using a BlackBerry. I don’t think so!

Unlike Silva’s previous books, I thought the quest for Madeline was only so-so. That was probably two-fold: no interest in the character and being only a bit more than halfway through the book, it was obvious there was more to come. I found much more angst in the meeting with Gennady Lazarev. Shades of Arkady Medvedev. There was no question of whether Gabriel would survive this. That was actually a relief. I actually believe Allon is Silva in many ways and he won’t kill “himself” so it’s often Shamron and Chiara who I worry about the most.

Aside from the people, I love Silva’s description of place. Israel has always been one of his strengths, which makes sense. In some ways she is as much of a main character as Allon. But in The English Girl, Silva turned his pen to Russia:

It was not the Russia of his childhood, or the Russia he had served as a nuclear scientist, but the Russia that had stumbled into existence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was lawless Russia—drunken, confused, lost Russia. Its traumatized people had been promised cradle-to-grave security….Lubyanka had always been good at hiding her emotions, just as Russia had always been good at hiding her dead….He was in a tsarist dreamland, imported from the West and built by terrorized peasants. Florence called to him from the facades of the Baroque palaces, and, crossing the Moyka River, he dreamed of Venice. He wondered how many bodies lay beneath the ice. Thousands, he thought. Tens of thousands. No other city in the world concealed the horrors of its past more beautifully than St. Petersburg.

In some ways, there are parallels between Russia and Israel. Both need to start over. Israel in 1948. Russia in 1991. They took two completely different paths. Each shows the path the other could have taken – for itself and its residents. I am too young to remember much of the USSR and KGB but I like how Silva brings them to life in highlighting their remaining presence in today’s Russia and how that endangers Allon’s team.

They ate lunch in the artists’ quarter, at the home of a woman named Tziona Levin. Though Gabriel referred to Tziona as his doda, his aunt, she was actually the closest thing he had to a sibling. She didn’t seem at all surprised when he appeared on her doorstep accompanied by a beautiful young woman whom the entire world believed to be dead. She knew that Gabriel had a habit of returning to Israel with lost objects.

Interesting piece of back story for Gabriel. Not only is he the archangel, he’s the patron saint of lost causes. With another series, another author Madeline might be what draws Gabriel away from Chiara, but I love that Gabriel is a better person than that.

“There was a child. A fire. The child died but the wife lived. She lives still.” Chiara drew away sharply…. “Your husband is waiting for you at the villa,” she said. “Go home and tell him he’s going to be a father again.” “Boy or girl?” The old woman smiled and said, “One of each.”

Novel endings often bother me. They feel like a let down when the book has passed its climax. In this case, that definitely wasn’t true.

Thank you, Daniel Silva, for another amazing book. I look forward to Director, Father Gabriel although I know it won’t be that simple. His life never is.

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