Monday, 26 April 2021

The Starlings of Bucharest by Sarah Armstrong - Reviewed by Adam Colclough


The Starlings of Bucharest

Sarah Armstrong

Sandstone Press, Pbk £8.99  April 22, 2021

Ted Walker a working-class young man with aspirations to be a journalist moves to London from the provinces in the mid-seventies. Down on his luck he takes a job with reviewing films for a magazine that seems forever one issue away from going under. Sent to Romania and then Moscow to cover the film festivals Walker finds himself immersed in the looking glass world of the Cold War. As a useful innocent both sides have plans to use him as a piece in a game he barely understands.


This is one of the most intelligent espionage novels I have read in the past couple of years. For once the comparisons Armstrong has drawn with le Carre is more than just reviewer’s hyperbole.


Like the master of the genre, she presents the spaying game as being anything but glamorous. There are no battles with super villains bent on world domination here, just a lot of grubby tail chasing that might produce a small advantage; then again it might just as well not.


Armstrong gives her central character a voice that is by turns touchingly naïve and strikingly observant of the action playing out around him. This is convincingly a story told by a young man just waking up to his capacity to make sense of what might be going on behind the surface of life.


She also describes the grimy and angst-ridden London of the seventies with an accuracy that means you can almost smell the Britain in decay. Her portrayal of life behind the Iron Curtain is equally grim, showing us a society in which revolutionary fervour of revolution has fossilized into inept bureaucracy. The reports written on Walker and his activities by the various agencies watching him are masterpieces of paranoid assumption that are both comical and alarming.


Anyone who thinks the Cold War spy novel sank without trace years ago weighed down by its own cliches should read the work of Sarah Armstrong and change their mind.

Sarah Armstrong is the author of four novels, most recently The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt and The Starlings of Bucharest. She is also the author of A Summer of Spying, a short non fiction work about her experience of jury service during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Adam Colclough lives and works in the West Midlands, he writes regularly for a number of websites, one day he will get round to writing a book for someone else to review. 

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