American Spy is a difficult book to pull off. A slow burn literary spy novel in which the concept of subterfuge is used symbolically to examine race, gender, immigration and the long reach of colonialism. The book has a lot of heavy lifting to do. Fortunately, it’s in the hands of a capable writer Lauren Wilkinson knows what she’s doing.
The strength of it is in its primary character. Marie Mitchell is a complex person and Wilkinson allows her to be complex while trusting the reader will be engaged with how she engages the world. The book explores her life in non-linear fashion, switching back-and-forth to her work with the FBI and eventually with a private contracting firm trying to sow political dissent in Burkina Faso. It examines the complexities of being a black woman, specifically a light-skinned daughter of an immigrant and a cop, and the many choices she made and she makes to become what she is.
It also uses the real life story of Thomas Sankara, who is sometimes referred to as the “Guevara of Africa”, to add some tension to the plot. Because of this and without giving too much away, the latter parts of the book do have some thriller aspects. It’ll especially help if you don’t know much about Sankara’s story (I looked it up on Wikipedia half way through and wish I hadn’t). The ending is predictable but sad and effecting.
This is quite a tale and it’ll stick with me for a time. It gives the reader, especially one who is not black, a lot to think about.