“Likha beda nachalo,” reflects one of the Russian agents in Jason Matthews’s “Red Sparrow.” “Trouble is the beginning of disaster.”
High-placed moles have burrowed into the U.S. and the Russian governments, where bureaucracy and treachery frequently go hand in hand. Just when one trouble is handled, another rears its fresh ugliness — perhaps wielding a two-foot-long Khyber blade.
Veteran CIA operative-turned-novelist Matthews keeps the trouble popping in “Red Sparrow,” but relentless drama is just one of the high points of this sublime and sophisticated debut.
Much of that drama pivots on the relationships among three characters. Increasingly reckless Nate Nash is one of the CIA’s internal-ops officers, tasked with recruiting and handling CIA assets. Chief among those assets is MARBLE, the CIA’s “jewel in the tiara,” a mole at the top rungs of Russia’s foreign intelligence service who’s been selling out his country’s secrets for years.
But it’s the Red Sparrow herself, Dominika Egorova, who ultimately takes center stage. Although her parents secretly abhorred the Soviet system, she is the niece of the first deputy director of the foreign intelligence service — a mixed political heritage that puts her at the crossroads of the controversy about Russia’s new direction. Conscripted into service by her uncle, Dominika excels at her training but then finds herself enrolled against her will in Sparrow School, a “Courtesan College,” where agents of both sexes are trained in the art of seducing the enemy.
Unbeknown to most, Dominika is gifted with a form of synesthesia that enables her to see emotions as colors — a condition that aids her immensely as she assesses the motives of both friend and foe. Several of her own comrades in the service, for example, are suffused with “the familiar yellow of treachery and betrayal.” One character’s evil manifests itself as “parabolas of black . . . like bat wings.”
Dominika is ultimately targeted against Nate, of course, as a means of discovering the identity of the mole within her own ranks. His aura is deep purple, “warm and honest and safe,” but he has his own designs on this comely young agent.
“Red Sparrow” may sound like some hodgepodge of the fantastic (seeing emotions?) and the prurient (“an Upper Volga Kama Sutra”) amid a series of spy vs. spy shenanigans. But the novel is far more grounded. The stakes here are high, with agents on both sides desperately following streams of sensitive information, but Matthews focuses on the people and the intelligence community’s day-to-day routines: exhausting surveillance routes; a canary trap, a honey trap, a dead drop; or just idle chat with potential recruits at embassy receptions. (Who knew the District’s Tabard Inn was such a hot spot for treachery and treason?) More than a primer in tradecraft, “Red Sparrow” offers an advanced study, covering both the high drama and the frequent drudgery of the espionage game.
Matthews clearly invests the novel with the weight of his long experience in the service, but he’s also an ambitious craftsman, and the prose rivals the plotline for energy and urgency. Sly descriptions abound, from the “poached-egg eye” of a Russian assassin to the “grimy catechisms” of those Sparrow School lessons. And despite a tendency toward point-of-view whiplash shifts, the author inhabits voices and perspectives with an impressionist’s aplomb, whether the rich patter of a CIA agent recounting an Istanbul adventure or those dry reports in the “abbreviated style of the semiliterate Soviet.”
“Red Sparrow” isn’t just a fast-paced thriller — it’s a first-rate novel as noteworthy for its superior style as for its gripping depiction of a secretive world. While many former CIA agents and MI6 operatives have turned to writing fiction in retirement, Matthews joins a select few who seem as strong at their second careers as at their first.
Taylor, a professor at George Mason University, reviews mysteries and thrillers frequently for The Post.
By Jason Matthews
Scribner. 434 pp. $26.99