Edward Wilson’s A Very British Ending holds out a gesturing hand to readers, inviting them to take in the far reaches of time, class and place.
A Very British Ending follows at-first junior spy William Catesby through his career in the intelligence services. But we begin at the end, meeting Catesby as he cycles through Suffolk, battered by rough winds. He has been summoned to a meeting with the Cabinet Secretary in London but he doesn’t know for which lie he’s told, for which traitor he helped protect or for which order he failed to carry out. He doesn’t know, and neither do we.
If you like knowing exactly what is going on, this may not be the book for you. Huge paragraphs revolve around code names. One character may be going by three different aliases. Lead characters begin discussing others that we’ve not met. And yet this all adds to the idea of intrigue throughout the book. Characters like to quote Sir Walter Scott: Oh what a tangled web we weave. When first we practise to deceive! Each time, it is like a nod from Wilson, acknowledging that this is complicated, urging you to understand.
There is a sense of the cinematic in the novel, particularly in the first chapters. It is easy to see headings of dates and places flashing up on the screen in your mind’s eye, Bond-esque in shots of Whitehall or Washington. Hollywood have mastered providing the audience with just enough realism to believe it when Bond is seemingly fatally shot but ready for his next adventure just as soon as he’s drunk enough shots on his remote island. Wilson takes the premise of realism and adds… realism. This skilful melding of what is real and what is fiction is a strength throughout the book, and through all of Wilson’s work.
One of the strongest scenes (even now, I’m thinking of these parts as scenes, rather than chapters) is when Catesby comes upon the aftermath of Oradour-sur-Glane. I am embarrassed that I didn’t know what that meant when I first picked up the book. I was unsure when I started reading whether the book was going to be historically accurate, so I Googled the town name, thinking that it would perhaps be a real place but mostly unremarkable. Oradour-sur-Glane was an unspeakably awful event in the Second World War and Wilson’s honest but respectful description showed me that I wasn’t in for a slash-and-stab adventure.
However, the novel does markedly slow down in the middle. I needed to take it in bursts, keeping my mind fresh on who did what, and how that was politically devastating/astute, in order to feel a pay-off. I recommend, though, that if you’ve got the time to linger and appreciate the intricacies, that you do so. If you rush, you’ll be short-changing yourself and this book.
This is a book that isn’t going to dumb things down for you. Here is what’s happening; try to keep up.