American Spy opens with a literal bang, the way most spy novels do. But then it becomes something different – more of a memoir, more of a reckoning with the past that led to the opening shot. Marie, the titular spy, is the lone black female employee in her FBI field office. Attacked in her home, she flees New York to her mother’s country of Martinique; meanwhile, she reflects on her girlhood with her sister, now deceased, and her time as a spy during the Cold War of the 1980s.
In the 80s, her job took her to Burkina Faso and the charismatic Thomas Sankara, “Africa’s Che Guevara”. There, the decisions she makes will reverberate across her lifetime.
Even though the most recent sections of this novel are set in 1992, the questions it poses are as timely as ever. What does service to your country mean in a country that has never worked for you? What is it like to be among the first black women to break into the white old boy’s club in a given organization, but particularly in the FBI? Is the U.S. government evil? And honestly, is everybody a spy?
I have not read a ton of spy novels, but i have read more than my share of thrillers. This book – to me at least – is not a thriller. It was dense, and I had to go back and check characters a few times. I also would not categorize it as a fun read; this isn’t a paperback spy novel for the beach or plane. Instead, it is a thoughtful, careful book, one that left me thinking about it days after I finished it (and googling COINTELPRO, Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara, etc). I’m glad I read it; I am now a modicum less ignorant than before I started.