Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 2 February 2021)
Length: 344 pages
My Rating: 4.25 out of 5
Deception, divided loyalties and despair are all on offer in the debut novel of Australian writer Rebecca Starford, who presents a curious and captivating read with The Imitator.
‘We trade in secrets here, Evelyn. There’s no shame in having a few of your own. Our only concern is for who might discover them.’
Out of place at boarding school, scholarship girl Evelyn Varley realises that the only way for her to fit in is to be like everyone else. She hides her true self and what she really thinks behind the manners and attitudes of those around her. By the time she graduates from Oxford University in 1939, ambitious and brilliant Evelyn has perfected her performance.
War is looming. Evelyn soon finds herself recruited to MI5, and the elite counterintelligence department of Bennett White, the enigmatic spy-runner. Recognising Evelyn’s mercurial potential, White schools her in observation and subterfuge and assigns her the dangerous task of infiltrating an underground group of Nazi sympathisers working to form an alliance with Germany.
But befriending people to betray them isn’t easy, no matter how dark their intent. Evelyn is drawn deeper into a duplicity of her own making, where truth and lies intertwine, and her increasing distrust of everyone, including herself, begins to test her better judgement. When a close friend becomes dangerously ensnared in her mission, Evelyn’s loyalty is pushed to breaking point, forcing her to make an impossible decision.
A powerfully insightful and luminous portrait of courage and loyalty, and the sacrifices made in their name.
This ended up being a fantastic and enjoyable read from Rebecca Starford, who has come up with a really intriguing and unique story. Starford is an Australian writer who is probably best known for her work on the Kill Your Darlings magazine, as well as her non-fiction book Bad Behaviour, which chronicled the author’s life at an elite country boarding school. The Imitator, which was also released under the title, An Unlikely Spy, is an impressive and captivating historical drama that follows a young woman who becomes involved with British espionage at the start of World War II.
The Imitator has an interesting and surprising story to it which is guaranteed to grab the reader’s attention all the way up to its final shocking twist. Told from the perspective of protagonist, Evelyn Varley, the story is split into two distinct periods, with some of plot set shortly after the end of World War II, while the rest follows the protagonist during the early days of the war. Most of the narrative is set during the earlier time and examines the protagonist during this period, including her recruitment into MI5 and her eventual work investigating Nazi sympathisers. This proves to be quite a fascinating narrative thread, and I really enjoyed the great blend of historical espionage and the compelling drama surrounding the character and her personal relationships. I was particularly intrigued by the parts of the book that explored Evelyn’s attempts to infiltrate a major group of Nazi sympathisers, especially as she is forced to alter her personality to fit into the tight-knit group of fascists. Starford also includes several chapters set after the war which show Evelyn dealing with the aftermath and her actions during the conflict. These post-war sequences compliment the rest of the story extremely well, and hint at tragic consequences to what she did after she is contacted by people from her past. However, readers are in for quite a shock, as these later sequences are shown to be a major bait and switch. Instead of the conclusion that you would generally expect in one of these stories, Starford puts in a particularly major and dramatic twist which really changes the entire tone of the narrative. This twist was a brilliant master stroke from the author, especially as it switches around the implications for the post-war chapters and shines a whole new light on everything. I was really impressed with this amazing narrative, especially once you realise how the author set up the clever ending, and this was truly an awesome and memorable story.
One of the things that I really liked about The Imitator was the fantastic historical setting of London during the early period of World War II. Starford did a great job of highlighting what life during this period would have been like, from the early actions of organisations such as MI5, to the feelings of the populace, most of whom were convinced that the war would be fought far away or would not happen at all. I was also really impressed by the author’s examination and dramatization of several intriguing real-life historical events that occurred during this period. The character of Evelyn Varley is based upon the real life of MI5 operative Joan Miller, who infiltrated a major Nazi sympathiser movement, known as the Right Club, in London back in 1939. Many details about the Right Club are fitted into the book and used as the basis for the Nazi group the protagonist infiltrates. While there are several name changes, the fictional group closely matches what actually happened with the Right Club and MI5’s mission to infiltrate it. I felt that Staford did an amazing job exploring this group and the mission of Joan Miller, and it proved to be an exceptional and clever base to this awesome story.
I also must compliment the compelling and intriguing protagonist of this novel, Evelyn, who serves as the main point-of-view character for the story. Evelyn is a complex individual with a number of features formed during her harsh early life at a prestigious private boarding school. Thanks to her less affluent parents, Evelyn does not really fit in with the richer students and is soon forced to adopt a much different persona, which is helped by the relationship she forms with the family of her one friend at the school. This ability to change her persona becomes particularly important later in life when she begins her career in espionage and must show a false side to herself to people she is trying to take down. Starford has written a fantastically complex character here in Evelyn, and I really appreciated the way in which the author examines what events or personality traits a successful undercover spy might need to have. I also liked the way in which we get to see the character at different parts of her life as the book progresses, such as her innocent pre-war life, her experiences as a seasoned infiltrator and her reflections as a damaged survivor. These various periods of her life and the different personalities are very dramatic and intriguing, and I found it fascinating to see how the author envisioned her changing personality. Starford also writes in an extremely good storyline around the protagonist’s twisted loyalties, which forces her to choose between the safety of her country and the people closest to her. These conflicting loyalties and friendships take Eveyln in some dark places and I really must applaud the clever and powerful narrative that Starford constructed around this great character.
Overall, The Imitator by Rebecca Starford is an exceptional and captivating read that comes highly recommended. I really enjoyed this fantastic book’s clever blend of historical fiction, espionage and dramatic storylines, and I had a wonderful time getting through all of The Imitator’s compelling twists and revelations. An outstanding read that is guaranteed to stick in the mind long after you have finished reading it.