BY JAVIER MARÍAS
'Berta Isla' revolves round the world of espionage, but it is far from a spy thriller. Rather, it is dissection of what happens to a marriage when secrets have to be kept and long periods of absence endured - no questions asked.
Berta and Tomás meet at school in Spain in the sixties and fall in love, knowing at once, despite their youth, that their relationship is special. A beautiful, talented couple, there is never any doubt they will marry. Tomás is half British and goes to university in Oxford where he stands out as an extraordinary linguist, whilst Berta continues her studies in Madrid. Whilst at Oxford, Tomás is accused of a serious crime and to avoid prison he agrees to work as a spy for the British government. Although he does return to Spain to marry Berta, his career choice has far reaching consequences which seriously alters their future together. Tomás is unable to divulge anything about his “other life” when he leaves Berta and their two young children for long periods at a time and Berta is not permitted to enquire about his whereabouts or what he does. As time moves on the pressure of being apart and having no norm to return to, lead to an unsettling state whereby neither situation seems the real one.
Javier Marías captures Berta’s periods of survival without Tomás with a unique scrutiny, dissecting her feelings and coping mechanisms of this lonely separation. When a couple, presumed to be IRA sympathisers, turn up on the doorstep, Berta is unable to contact Tomás and she is suddenly made aware of the danger of her husband’s job. As time goes on she can only imagine what he might be doing and when she convinces herself he must be involved in the Falklands War, she starts to follow the news incessantly. Her isolation is unnerving and Marías cleverly draws you in to her unsettling world. The not-knowing becomes obsessional and the impact on her life and that of their children and Tomás’s parents is raw and painful.
The story is cleverly topped and tailed with Tomás’s narration - beginning with his rather foolish entrapment by the British secret service and ending with his harsh realisation that maybe the sacrifices he had been forced to make hadn’t been worth it.
Whilst the Den were totally engrossed in the storyline, there are times during Berta’s narration that the pace slows unnecessarily as viewpoints are repeated – it can feel a little long-winded and indulgent. But overall, the writing is beautifully observed and you wonder at the end – was it all worth it?