“Who Is Vera Kelly” by Rosalie Knecht (2018) is part coming-of-age novel, part spy story. It doesn’t evolve like an espionage thriller, but I liked it anyway. About a third of the way through the book, I was desperate to know what would happen. It slowly warmed me up, like a good stew after a long hike in the cold.
Written in the first person, it’s about a drifting-but-smart young woman, Vera, who embarks on a job with the CIA and ends up in Buenos Aires on her first major assignment. Issues of mother-daughter drama, the history of Argentina, and Cold War-era politics, sexuality and love are also woven in.
I really liked the way Knecht used flashbacks to lend a sense of the wisdom of hindsight. At the start of the book, Vera is in Chevy Chase, MD, in 1957, and then in the second chapter (already on page three), she’s in Buenos Aires a decade later. Thereafter, the chapters alternate in location and time, until we finally have the whole picture in the final chapter (1967). As the stories oscillate, the reader gains insights into Vera’s life, as if she herself has only figured them out as time has passed.
Knecht drops tidbits about CIA and KGB activity in Argentina during the Cold War, leading the reader to wonder who is who, driving the story forward. This is where much of the suspense comes in, as questions arise surrounding the true identities and motivations of the characters. “The CIA had been getting reports for years that the KGB was recruiting among the Marxist students,” Vera notes. Knecht highlights how categories in one country do not necessarily line up neatly with those in another. Vera writes, “I was left-wing in America; I believed in civil rights, and I had voted for Kennedy. But by Argentine standards, perhaps I was not left-wing.”
Another way to look at “Who Is Vera Kelly” is as an anatomy of a coup. With Vera posing as a Canadian student Anne and describing the unfolding political upheaval, the reader gets to observe from her outsider’s vantage point. The impending coup feels like an iceberg inching toward an inevitable crash, something everyone sees coming but that is impossible to stop. More suspense comes in here, as the reader wants to know how she gets out, and whether her CIA boss will come through for her.
On the downside, there was not enough historical detail for my taste. I would have preferred additional historical facts worked into the story. In particular, I had to check history books and websites to remind myself of the timeline of Argentina’s history, and how that would’ve related to Vera Kelly. Basics such as the background on the coup that came in June 1966, which brought Gen. Juan Carlos Ongania to power, could have been sprinkled throughout. I would l have enjoyed more detail on why certain characters were personally for or against Ongania.
Another important aspect of the book has to do with love and sexual orientation, especially in the context of the era, when people really had to keep any same-sex feelings hidden. The way in which Knecht intertwines Vera’s experiences with both men and women came across as authentic to me, and I found these developments well-balanced, critical pieces of the overall story, rather than off-handed additions designed to target a certain audience.
Finally, the ending really blew my mind, with multiple aspects that I didn’t foresee at all, but that seemed feasible, once they were revealed. “Who Is Vera Kelly” is not really a spy novel, but it is a great read that involves spying, and it gets hotter and hotter as it goes.