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‘Who Is Vera Kelly?’ by Rosalie Knecht: Brainy, endearing bisexual spy

"Who Is Vera Kelly" by Coatesville native Rosalie Knecht features a brainy female spy sent to Argentina in the 1960s.

Rosalie Knecht, author of "Who Is Vera Kelly?"
Rosalie Knecht, author of "Who Is Vera Kelly?"Read moreLeft: Michael P. Geraci; Right: Jakob Vala/ Courtesy of Tin House Press

Who Is Vera Kelly?
By Rosalie Knecht
Tin House Books. 266 pp. $15.95.

Reviewed by Rayyan Al-Shawaf

Women in espionage-oriented fiction tend to come in two varieties: the clueless wife or girlfriend of the male spy, and the femme fatale who ensnares him. In her new novel, however, Rosalie Knecht (author of Relief Map) adopts a different tack. Who Is Vera Kelly? makes for light reading, but of a kind that proves sly, brisk, and charming – with a woman as protagonist.

Knecht, who grew up in Coatesville and now lives in New York City, alternates between Cold War-era Argentina, where the eponymous narrator serves as an undercover CIA agent in 1966, and a still sexually repressive America (1957-62), in which a younger Vera comes of age while grappling with her frowned-upon attraction to women. The Argentina chapters form the novel's backbone. The others are shorter and largely extraneous – though they do reveal how Vera was recruited by U.S. intelligence.

"Was this a city waiting for the murder of its president?" muses Vera. The city in question is Argentina's capital, Buenos Aires, where our protagonist takes up residence under the guise of a Canadian university student. Given that a coup by right-wing military elements dissatisfied with the weak central government is clearly in the offing, the CIA has entrusted Vera with keeping tabs on two political factions: the core of the embattled president's administration, and radical leftist college students whose alleged KGB handlers may seize the opportunity to foment unrest.

Don't get hung up on the admittedly implausible scenario that the CIA would dispatch a green 25-year-old operative to a major South American country where, save for a local contact, she must fend for herself. Vera's escapades in Buenos Aires justify the suspension of disbelief. When the anticipated coup materializes, her contact unexpectedly sells her out to the super-vigilant authorities, foreigners are barred from leaving the country, and she homes in on the very students she's monitoring as her ticket out of Argentina.

Charismatic student leader Román and his girlfriend Victoria (whom Vera was recently tutoring in English) have chartered an airplane to fly them to Ushuaia, at the southern tip of the country, where they might lie low for a while. "From Ushuaia I could find a tanker that would take me through the Strait of Magellan and around to the Chilean side of the Andes," remarks an increasingly desperate Vera. "It was the only way I could get out of Argentina without showing papers."

Yet Román and Victoria balk at Vera's request to join them. What is the pair really up to? The answer concerns "two frigid inkblots in the south Atlantic" called the Falkland Islands, a British overseas territory claimed by Argentina. Knecht's deft maneuvering of this perpetually hot-button issue into the proceedings gives the story its tastiest twist and sets up a hair-raising climax.

Who Is Vera Kelly? won't exactly set the literati's hearts aflutter. No matter. Imagine yourself a contestant on Jeopardy! presented with this description of a novel's heroine: Brainy bisexual/lesbian CIA agent sent to Argentina in the 1960s, where she unearths scant information on supposed KGB machinations but acquits herself impressively when backed into a corner by a military coup, untangling political intrigue all the while and endearing herself to the reader, to boot.

Answer: Who is Vera Kelly?

Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Beirut. His debut novel, "When All Else Fails," is forthcoming from Interlink Books.