The Short Version: In the wake of the revelation of the mole in the Circus, George Smiley circles the wagons and essentially begins everything anew. Finding a potential lead in Hong Kong, he dispatches Jerry Westerby in run it down. Westerby finds himself wrapped up in local politics at the end of the Vietnam War and the Circus enters a tenuous partnership with the Cousins – but it all goes to hell in the end, naturally.
The Review: It’s interesting that this is a Smiley novel. There’s quite a lot of old George but not anywhere near as much as Tinker… and, as evidenced by an author’s foreword in another edition, le Carré always wondered if he should’ve pared Smiley’s presence down to the bare minimum in order to make the novel a bit leaner. And, indeed, perhaps he should’ve. This book feels… like more than one book. It feels bloated, it feels too ambitious, and it feels incomplete – all of these things at once, no matter how paradoxically.
See, for me the interesting story is Smiley’s. The Circus, reeling from the reveal of Haydon as the mole, is perched on the edge of disaster and that’s a fascinating story: how does an organization so thoroughly compromised effectively restart itself? Even the idea of heading to Hong Kong – a place exotic and rather uniquely placed in time in the late 70s – is exciting, for the Russians and the Americans and the Brits all had a hand in that pot. So why, then, does the novel feel so plodding? Is it because we’re constantly ripped back and forth between Westerby and Smiley? I don’t know – I can’t say that for certain, although a novel that had been solely focused on Westerby might’ve been a more tightly-wound and thus more engaging one.
But the thing is, I hated Westerby. Quite a lot. He never seemed to come fully formed as a character, for one thing. He was more of a caricature to some extent – he seemed American despite being British, if that makes sense. And while I’m all for romantic gestures and pulling ridiculous stunts on behalf of lady-loves, his infatuation with Lizzie just didn’t make sense to me. It never became obvious why he was willing to throw all of this away for this girl who he met once. I can buy that if it’s explained well enough but the one night they went out wasn’t all that successful for Westerby and then he sort of forgets about her. Okay, he fantasizes about her but then why did he wait until the end of the damn game to go get her? It just doesn’t make any sense and that bothered me.
Also, I have to admit: I’m not anywhere near well-versed in the regional politics of the end of the Vietnam war. I just simply don’t know enough of this stuff for this book to’ve made sense without a primer. There’s too much of it, it’s too complicated, and as le Carré points out in the introduction to this edition, the book was antiquated even ten years after it was written because the landscape had changed so dramatically since then. Hell, even now – Hong Kong is no longer a British territory. Talk about a radical shift. The end of the Cold War doesn’t lessen the pulse of Tinker… but the end of Western entanglement in Asia certainly changes the way you read this book.
This book is billed as the second in a trilogy – the “Karla” trilogy, named after Smiley’s “dark Grail” and Moriarty-esque nemesis. But it doesn’t feel like one. It feels like a standalone novel with trilogy aspects appended to it, in order to try and capitalize on the success of the previous book. This mysterious Karla is a wildly frustrating MacGuffin, as he still remains so far in the shadows that you never even get more than a grainy glimpse of him. I can understand that frustration as part of the story – hell, it’s certainly what drives Smiley – but when the plot starts to rev up in pursuit of this mysterious man and then to see it all fall apart in the face of the American intervention and the rather dull hunt for these Ko brothers… it’s disheartening. It’s the sort of thing that puts a reader off – it isn’t just “oh, what a shame” but it’s “wow, this was a bit of a waste of time, wasn’t it?”
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. It was well-written and witty, that’s without doubt. And there were, again, moments of brilliantly plotted tension. But I hated the denouement and I hated the main character, so how could I really truly feel anything other than luke-warm about the book as a whole? The characters established in Tinker… are the ones I like – and it was a blast to see them as a ragtag band of the few remaining ‘good guys’, going after whatever they can find. It was scrappy and fun and exciting – and even more heartbreaking for the end they all come to. But I feel like the story in-between all of that (the story of Westerby and what led to that end) was bloated and sagged and brought down the book. I hope Smiley’s People shows a bit more pulse.