John le Carré is an author I really like, but can be frustrating at times. I love the slow burn of his books. They are unhurried, take place over a long time, feel like real spy work and not just heroics.
But the Honorable Schoolboy also takes forever to move along and finally get anywhere. There are a ton of characters, many of which have at least one undercover name. I keep thinking I will read (instead of listening to the audiobook) one of these, but I keep listening because I find them audiobooks on sale and the kindle books never seem to go on sale.
There is a real change in this book from previous le Carré books. The narration suddenly gets is own voice occasionally. I am not opposed to the ‘omnipotent narrator’ as a story telling method. But it is new and feels a bit odd at times. The reader is being told the story from the future. The narrator knows what is going to happen and knows there is going to be regret in the end.
This is a middle book in a trilogy. So much like Empire Strikes Back, the victory that is won is a meager victory.
There is also a very clear change in the political outlook in this book. In previous books the fight is against the eastern block and communism. In this book Smiley is clearly going against Karla who is the communist enemy. But he is also fighting against the weak British government that is unwilling to do anything and against the US, which has no problem rolling over its ‘friends’.
The setting is the end of the Vietnam War. None of the action actually happens in Vietnam, but it uses the actual timeline around the end of the war to ground the fictional action. This was not a high point in the western world. So the dour mood of the book makes sense. But my guess is that le Carré is also acting out some of his own feelings as a former spy for the UK against the US. This feels personal.
Like almost all books I am reading lately, I feel like he could have cut at least 50-75 pages and kept the slow burn feel that I liked. At over 600 pages it just felt long. But that does not mean that I am not going to read the next book, I am six books in now I can’t stop.