This spy novel (280 pages) was published in June of 2018 by Tin House Books. The book takes you to 1960s Argentina. David read Who Is Vera Kelly? and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if he didn't recommend it.
We love a good mashup. This gripping tale combines a gritty espionage story — rich with shifting alliances and trust issues — with a coming-of-age story about a young woman wrestling with her sexuality during the rocky 1960s.
The book opens with a bang. Our heroine Vera almost overdoses on tranquilizers, and in the aftermath, we meet her terribly unsympathetic mother. At once, we are on Vera’s side. This wry, intelligent, troubled young girl has got us.
In the very next chapter, we’re following Vera as she begins some spy work in Buenos Aires. It’s 1966, and President Illia is in danger of losing his job to General Juan Carlos Ongania — in part because Ongania has tanks he’s not afraid to use. Historically, that bit is accurate. As we learn about Vera, we also learn about Argentina’s turbulent history.
We travel alongside Vera and learn more about her internal conflicts. She’s young, capable, and a lesbian trying to make sense of her life in the everything-is-changing era of the ’60s.
The two threads of the book — the reality-grounded spy story and Vera’s struggles to be herself (while hiding herself as an active spy) — interact with each other in glorious fashion.
The slow reveal of information drives this book forward. When we meet Vera, we’re given enough information to care about her and no more. By the time we’ve gotten a handle on who she is, we’re hip-deep in a bunch of trouble that she’s gotten into. A gun has come into her possession. A bomb is being built somewhere. The state has fallen. Her friends might have abandoned her. There are a lot of questions about who she can trust and what’s happening.
Author Rosalie Knecht does an excellent job of exploring the idea that being a closeted gay person with a horrible mother might be the perfect qualification for espionage. Vera is very good at subverting her identity, quickly reading the room, and using coded language. Sadly, her personal and professional lives have also led her to believe she’s expendable.
Fair warning: You will fall hard for our girl Vera — and you’ll pick up historical knowledge, insight into the queer experience, and some first-rate tips for travel in Argentina along the way.
Psst… There are two follow-ups so you can spend more time with Vera: Vera Kelly is Not a Mystery finds our heroine in the Dominican Republic and Vera Kelly: Lost and Found is set in 1970s Los Angeles.
As Gerry had said, if things went bad, I could be killed. And yet, in the place where my fear should have been, there was a blank space. I felt that I had been living for a long time in a place beyond fear, where my life was contingent and didn’t amount to much anyway. Back home, I had known that if I was arrested at a dyke bar I would lose my job, and if I lost my job I would end up in a flophouse or worse. I went out anyway, because living was a dry waste if I didn’t. When I started working for Gerry and made enough money to keep some in the bank, I knew that if Gerry found out I went with girls, I would be fired twice over—the CIA did not pay out to homosexuals, because they were too easy to compromise. — Rosalie Knecht
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